After Coppolla's The Godfather was released, the declining New York mafia started speaking, acting, and killing like the Corleone family; they had a new image they had to live up to. The Godfather series is about the attempt to hold upper class civility and family tradition above the extortion and murderous power plays that pay the bills. GoodFellas, to which City of God has frequently been compared, is a rather seedier tale of the disintegration of friendship in a social circle defined by opportunism. City of God is the least civilized, and therefore the most honest, depiction of life in organized (more or less) crime. And, as it turns out, image is just as important among the legions of poor hoodlums in Brazil. Organized crime is not a matter of survival or camaraderie; the demand is always for some form of recognition, either acceptance by peers, celebrity, or, paradoxically, justice.
The film opens in a dusty housing project outside Rio de Janeiro in the 1960's, populated by colorful little rascals and lusty older boys with curiously comic book-esque names like Shaggy, Li'l Dice, Steak 'n' Fries, and Blacky. A few of the older youths hijack a propane truck to make a modest income selling the tanks to the needy: gangs arise by convenience and necessity, and survive because they provide a service to the community, which never rats on the gang members. The new gang is called the Tender Trio, and their part of the story is captioned with a freeze-frame of a bullet going through a soccer ball in midair. They soon move up to a hit on a brothel, where the plot is turned decisively by the sociopath Li'l Dice, who shoots everyone inside after the robbers leave. Police raids escalate and the Tender Trio splits up, fleeing into the Cidade de Deus, the sprawling and crime-ridden poor section of Rio. In the 70's Li'l Dice, renamed Li'l Zé in a strange quasi-religious ritual, has grown into a monomaniacal gang leader who casually slaughters his way to the top of the City of God's drug trade. On the other side is amateur photographer Rocket, whose older brother was murdered by Li'l Dice years past.
That accounts for the first 30 minutes. A really incredible amount of plot is packed into City of God, and it is a significant achievement that we always understand what is happening and never get bogged down in exposition. The film commands our interest by the frenetic, hyper-stylized direction of Fernando Meirelles, who got into the industry through shooting commercials (and it shows). Combining gritty realism with rapid cuts and an array of Scorsesean visual flamboyance, City of God's camera is decidedly not an impartial observer; it gets intimately involved with the ensuing bloodshed. It might be objected that to present violence stylishly is to glorify it, but therein lies the film's secret. In the world of the film, violence is a given; it is not something that is glorified but a means of glorification. Children frolic all through the film with guns, and murder in the spirit of playing dodgeball. We may be shocked by this, but the movie is not; the adults, young as they are, act in just the same way. No one in this movie ever grows up, so the style surges in fast motion and strobe effects with the impetuous uncaring of youth. The film has no morals but it lets you see for yourself who's a murderer and who isn't. C'est la vie.
A documentary in that it is not about anything except a way of life and the people who live it, for all the violence of City of God there is a great deal of charm as well. Sick of being poor and newly in possession of a handgun, Rocket and a friend set out to hold something up, except that every mark they find proves too cool for them to rob. One of these marks is Knockout Ned, a peaceful army veteran who crosses Li'l Zé entirely by chance and has his entire family killed as a result. Carrot, a rival kingpin, comes to Ned and recruits him to exact revenge, which becomes a full-blown gang war; both sides even arm posses of children with handguns. The idealistic Ned initially insists on never killing innocents, but this ethic is soon lost in the frenzy. There is a twist near the end of the film where I think Meirelles loses the film's humanity; without giving it away, a chance event earlier in the film returns with a vengeance. The scene might have been played with some quiet sympathy, but it partakes more of the soulless, vivisecting irony of Run Lola Run.
City of God's perspectival balancing act is centered on Rocket, whom we first see caught in a standoff between Zé's posse and the police. Rocket substitutes the way of the gun with the passport of the camera; his photos afford him the favor of Li'l Zé, who is obsessed with getting his picture in the papers, while letting Rocket stay out of his gang. By the end, Rocket rises to his own fame by shooting firsthand evidence of police corruption and of Li'l Zé's apropos and much-deserved demise.
The Cidade de Deus still never lets you grow up. Rocket's friend says at the end, "At least you got a job out of all this." Rocket replies, "Well, it's an internship."