City of God (Cidade de Deus) is a Brazilian film adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by Paulo Lins and published in 1997. Lins grew up in the city of god favela (a Brazilian slum within urban areas) where both the novel and the film are set, and as such the novel is partially an auto-biographical account of the lives of individuals inside this favela. The 2002 film, which this review will focus on, presents a slightly different course of events to those depicted in the novel, but both shamelessly show the violent not-so-underground world of drug dealing that exists in the cidade de deus.
I will confess that I don’t usually watch this sort of film, or indeed read this sort of book. Drugs, crime, violence… these themes and motifs aren’t all that appealing to me when they are used as outright genres, as I quite often find that the plots of these films end up being outrageously repetitive and dull. However, I’d heard great things about City of God, and eventually persuaded myself to sit down and watch it. After 130 minutes of sickening blood, sex and violence, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t surprised by this film one bit.
This film was intensely colourful, artistically filmed, and its cast was created almost entirely with amateur actors from actual favelas, including cidade de deus itself. The actors used were trained not as professional actors but as natural improvisers, and this gives the whole film a stark authenticity that is scarcely found elsewhere. These elements made the film bearable, but I simply could not shift the most glaringly obvious flaw that City of God has: it has a remarkably weak plot.
The tagline for City of God is “If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.” which is the mantra for the young boys that run the drugs trade in the favela; no matter how hard you try, you simple can’t avoid the undercurrent of violence that exists there. The pull of the city results in the death of countless characters as they try to escape it or turn over a new leaf, and this repeatedly takes the film back to its starting point with new characters replacing old in the same roles. This could be seen as being cinematically inspired—especially when the film begins with a chicken headed for slaughter, takes the narrative back in time many years and then concludes with the same scene, creating a blatantly neat loop within the film itself—but to me this came across merely as weak writing. To me, as a viewer, the tagline simply reflects the inability of this film to build progress and to develop its own plot, no matter how symbolic of the lifestyle within cidade de deus this is.