The crime genre is unquestionably one of the most popular in all of cinema. The fun of rooting for the so-called “bad guys” as the main character is an experience unlike many. The most popular subgenre within crime is the gangster film, and for clear reasons. We’re satisfied to watch them break the rules that we would never dare break ourselves only to be rewarded with money, women, and all sorts of power. Even more important, is that we usually see them stopped at the end, a necessary reminder that we shouldn’t follow the same paths.
The best offhand examples are ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Casino,’ ‘Scarface,’ and to a fairly generous extent, both ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Godfather.’ Beyond these films, gangsters in nearly any film genre are portrayed to live the aforementioned lifestyle. These titles are also considered among the best in their genre but there’s one film in the genre that is often overlooked as the best of the bunch. Likely slept on due to being a foreign film, the Brazilian made, ‘City of God’ (2002), is one of the most harrowing but enthralling films crime films ever made.
This is a completely different tale than the American crime film. While America romanticizes the idea of being a gangster, director Fernando Meirelles displays only the pitfalls. Like ‘Goodfellas’ this is also a true story but there are little to no overlapping similarities. The most important distinction between ‘City of God’ and other crime films is the location, which in this case, is the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Beyond the beach, there is essentially nothing naturally beautiful about the location and the dangerous street life only adds further darkness. The slums are run by young gangsters, almost all of which are ages 11-25, and are far more vicious than most adult American movie gangsters could wish to be.
Cinema Cartography on YouTube best described the film as an “open-world movie” and there is no better way to put it. While we have a “main” character, Rocket, he functions more as a mouthpiece for the City of God, itself rather than his own story. We don’t just follow Rocket’s plot but are introduced to so many different characters and interweaving plotlines through him because they’re all just as important as each other. While this would be jarring in other movies with conventional structures, it’s what makes ‘City of God’ function so smoothly. Every scene always involves at least two prominent characters, developing multiple plotlines at once. With that, each character’s plot will always affect another’s, emphasizing how connected everything is in the favela.
This is effectively carried out by Rocket’s role in the story. He’s liked enough by every gang and social group in the city for his photography skills that he’s able to provide the full story on moments that he wasn’t even there for. Though we know that he’ll make it through the movie, the spread of main characters and the fact that nobody is ever safe adds tension to whether or not he’ll even survive. This further adds to the audience’s role as a character because at any moment we know that our main lifeline to information and safety could be severed. We feel like at any moment, our protagonist can be taken and we’re left to fend for ourselves without a moral center, just like all of Rocket’s peers.
Each character affects each other in such a constant matter that revenge plays a major role in many subplots. With each character we see rise up, we see another fall and they’re always intertwined. Rocket’s older brother, Goose, is the first man we learn to root for and as he is about to fix his life, Lil Ze’ kills him and rises to the top over time. Lil Ze’ is the absolutely terrifying villain and kills many innocent people throughout the story, perpetuating the pure to become corrupt. Everybody who dies affects the plot of those alive, maintaining a constant and vengeful cycle that explains how the violence came to be this way in the first place. Even with the ending resolution, we know that other gangs will continue the violence that they so much wanted to avoid in the first place.
Beyond the characters and structure, the cinematography and editing are just as important for conveying the energy of the story. From the first moments, we are thrust into rapid cutting with a shaky camera and this energy is maintained throughout the film. Nothing is stable in the City of God and the POV-style camera work thrusts the audience in as a character, with little to no visual objectivity beyond the establishing shots. The jagged camera work and glaring cinematography emphasize the constant tension of the slums. Even the most relaxed moments have an internal stress because we know they’re simply fragments of peace lost in a sea of turmoil. While the natural environment isn’t quite beautiful, the movie is shot as though it is. The angles are effectively selected and the framing is to a point of perfection. Both the cinematography and editing play a major part in emphasizing that the city is the main character.
‘City of God’ standout among gangster films, and even most films in general for its storytelling methods. Focusing on so many characters instead of just one effectively tells that tale of a city in which nobody gets a chance at a full life. Everybody is developed as much as they need to be because the lifespans are so limited. The violence is purely gruesome with almost nothing spared and feels just as real as it actually is. Few directors have been as bold as Meirelles was in telling this story before or ever since, making ‘City of God’ a true masterpiece.