I’ve had this film on my watchlist for a very long time; I even owned the DVD and never watched it. Foolish of me really, to ignore a film ranked at number 21 in the IMDb top 250. Perhaps, like a lot of people, I was deterred by the subtitles, but since the inception of our World Cinema Club, I’ve been far more determined to discover foreign cinema with an open-mind. And wouldn’t you know it, ‘City Of God’ is a real gem of world cinema, and truth be told, you forget all about the subtitles after a while.

Set in a violent neighbourhood in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, ‘City Of God’ tells the stories of two young boys who adapt to their surroundings very differently. Based on a true story, this is told through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a boy who has always steered clear of the criminal path many of his peers decided to take. His older brother and his accomplices took that path, and didn’t make it back alive, so Rocket dedicates himself to becoming a photographer and finding a lady friend. On the other side of the spectrum is L’il Dice, known as L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino) once he becomes the criminal overlord of the slums. The two young men come into contact in many ways, with bloody, disastrous consequences, but who will walk away alive?

I’m finding it difficult to comment on the acting performances on display, but only because until this very moment I didn’t even take into consideration that anyone was “acting”, so authentic are the performances. As our protagonist, Alexandre Rodrigues is very much what you would call a “normal” young man, in that he simply wants to lead a mildly successful life, be happy and live past his early 20s. He produces a very likeable and humble character, who has your full support pretty much from the start. On the other hand, L’il Ze is a truly detestable character, portrayed with such menace by Leandro Firmino. He is desperate for power and money, unpredictable in his ways and a young man with very little sense or rationale. In the middle of these two is Benny (played by Phellipe Haagensen) the most likeable and amiable hoodlum in the slums, the man who keeps the peace on more than one occasion, and a character who you’ll find yourself urging to escape the criminal life.

‘City Of God’ is an immensely powerful film, and one which – to the best of my limited knowledge – is scarily accurate of life in the slums of Brazil. The mobster feel of the criminal gangs of Rio de Janeiro portrayed here reminded me very much of a Martin Scorsese film; like ‘Goodfellas’ with subtitles. The film mixes a brilliant balance of emotion and drama, with all-out violence and bloodshed, expertly pushing the pace along by jumping between two intense storytelling techniques. Like I said previously, the subtitles become the norm very quickly (as they do in most films), but you’ll find that every aspect of this film will engross you and as a viewer you genuinely do forget you’re watching a film rather than a documentary. 

Just like a Scorsese movie, you see the characters grow and mutate and you get a real sense of just how delicately balanced their fate is. This is a story which intimately explores the challenges facing young men in Brazil, simultaneously capable of exploring the issue on a grand scale whilst scrutinising the exact choices and emotions of just one boy; now, that’s a special kind of filmmaking. Not content with simply delivering a deep and intense narrative, ‘City Of God’ utilises the rich landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and paints a picture of beauty amongst the chaos. 

My only criticism would be that the film is a little slow for the first 20 minutes, but after that you’re totally gripped and invested. The first act perhaps tries to incorporate too many characters and storylines, much in the way a Quentin Tarantino movie does so well, but once the narrative closes in and gains some focus, you’ve got a thrilling, intertwining journey that Quentin would be proud of. And, unlike ‘Goodfellas’, which I felt tailed off towards the end, ‘City Of God’ gets stronger and stronger as the film progresses.

I’m going to make this really easy for you now; ‘City Of God’ is available on Netflix at the moment. So, no more excuses, forget about the subtitles and just watch a true modern classic of not only world cinema, but cinema as a whole. This is riveting, powerful and intense beyond belief, in the best possible way.

Rating: 8.6/10

Director(s): Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firminho, Phellipe Haagensen