What a profoundly depressing movie. And yet, it's so engrossing... City of God is about a slum of the same name near Rio de Janeiro. The town is so poor that crime is just an accepted part of life. When gangsters hold up a propane truck, the women and children rush to loot the gas canisters. Violent gangs are full of kids... Prepubescent children wave real guns around, hold up grocery stores, and talk about who they plan to kill next.
The movie is based on real life, and a couple hundred residents of the City of God participated as amateur actors. Perhaps the subtitles mask awkward delivery, but every character is totally convincing to me. Their lives feel very real, and they follow the brutal logic of lives of crime. One character starts out as an idealist and a nice guy. But when he is hurt and shamed by a gangster, he thirsts for revenge. He doesn't want to hurt any innocent people, and every move he makes seems to make sense at the time, but we see how logic can lead to tragedy.
The story is narrated by "Rocket", a teenager who aspires to be a photo journalist. Most of the head gangsters were his childhood friends, but he doesn't take part in the violence himself; he provides us with the perfect eyes. In one subplot, Rocket is constantly striving to lose his virginity. When he finally succeeds, it's in a way he least suspects, in a way that's a sign of the life he has chosen. Head gangster Li'l Zé has the same difficulties in love, but we see how he deals with his problems in a very different way.
There are many other characters, and the director (Fernando Meirelles) develops them much more subtly that I've described here... You never feel like you're being preached to, and the ideas and the motifs never feel heavy-handed. Because no one in the City of God can live without sin, the director makes no judgments about them. He just shows us each character as a fallible human being. Everything always makes so much sense. As odd or surprising as a development might be, it always feels like it couldn't have happened any other way.
The poster for this movie quotes a critic saying, "An exuberant chronicle of crime!" (No doubt the marketing people added the exclamation point.) Yes, the director keeps the story moving with style, but he takes care never to glorify the violence. As "cool" as many of the shots in the film are, the violence never does. In this sense, City of God is more successful than Saving Private Ryan was. With Saving Private Ryan, I found myself claiming that it showed us the horrors of war, but I was actually rather excited by the special effects, excited by the violence. I'm a bit ashamed of it, but there it is. With City of God, the violence never feels good. It always feels rather icky, as killing should. When I got excited, it was because of sudden bursts of understanding about the characters.
Like I said, this is a depressing movie, but it's so well-told, so well-filmed, and it feels so real that I'm very glad to have watched it. I feel like I learned a great deal about the nature of the City of God, from the overall social logic down to the individual motivations. It's a rare movie that can accomplish both so seamlessly.