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DVD Pick: "City of God"

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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The Portuguese-language drama “City of God” (2002) derives its title from the name of the hellish Rio de Janeiro slum in which the film is set. After watching this movie at home recently on DVD, I can certainly see why it was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director.

I think the most striking thing about “City of God” is its visual virtuosity, and nowhere is this more evident than in the bravura sequence titled “Benny’s Farewell.” This is a huge going-away street party in honor of Benny, the most likable of the many young hoodlums in the movie. He and his sexy girlfriend (played by Alice Braga, Sonia Braga’s niece) are leaving the City of God to seek a quieter lifestyle somewhere else. Dancing under strobe lights to pulsing music, most of the crowd is having a good time when violence erupts. A gunshot rings out, and although the bullet misses its intended target, it nonetheless sets off an all-out gang war.

I must admit that I was disoriented during much of “City of God” because of the large number of characters with unfamiliar faces, nonlinear narrative, jittery camera movements, and jumpy editing. But I was amazed at how the deceptively tight screenplay pulls everything together by film’s end.

It seems to me the movie isn’t so much about individuals as it is about a group of young males in the ironically named City of God. They grow up in a way of life dominated by hoodlums, drug dealers, and firearms. The slum is such a dangerous place for outsiders that the only cops who will go into it are crooked.

I found it difficult to keep track of all the young hoodlums in “City of God,” but the most memorable is a sociopath called Li’l Zé. In the film’s nastiest scene, Li’l Zé is going to punish a little boy, and he orders him to choose whether he prefers to be shot in the hand or in the foot.

There is, of course, a lot of violence in the movie, and the body count runs high. Yet, I didn’t find the film to be particularly graphic: it generally manages to imply violence without actually showing it.

Despite its violence and sordid subject matter, I wouldn’t characterize “City of God” as being unrelentingly downbeat. One of the reasons is the high energy level and the exuberant filmmaking. Another is that there is one character, known as Rocket, who is on his way to becoming a photojournalist by the end of the movie. The film comes up with an unforgettable metaphor for Rocket’s situation: a chicken running through the streets, trying to escape Li’l Zé and his minions.

Alas, the special features on the “City of God” DVD are disappointing. There is no commentary track of any kind, and the only bonus material of any consequence is a 56-minute documentary titled “News From a Personal War.” This is a documentary about Rio de Janeiro slum crime, featuring interviews with law enforcement, drug dealers, and slum dwellers, and there is brief interview footage with Paulo Lins, the author of the novel on which the movie was based. Although the documentary was somewhat dry and unimaginative, I didn’t mind watching it and found that it shed light on the situation depicted in the movie. But despite the paucity of extras, I still recommend this DVD because of the high artistic merit of the feature film.

DVD Details:

  • Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1), Color
  • Feature Run Time: 2 Hours 10 Minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Sexuality, Drug Content and Language
  • Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound
  • English Subtitles
  • French Subtitles
  • Spanish Subtitles
  • English Captions for the Hearing Impaired
  • Documentary: News From a Personal War (56 min.)
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