The film, directed by Fernando Meirelles, tells the story of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, in an area known as the Cidade De Deus, the City of God. The story is told from the narration of the young photographer, Rocket. The different scenarios of life that make up the wider-story are presented in Pulp Fiction style chapters, complete with on-screen titles for each different story component. The story covers all the facets of the life, charting the growth of several key members of the gangs from childhood through to young adulthood, with their transformation from young hoodlums to local drugs barons. The final parts of the story focus on the battle within the Cidade De Deus between two different groups, when business and personal matters lead to an unavoidable confrontation. And what a confrontation it is, although details will not be given away here. The result is a powerful telling of life based around real-life events.
Martin Scorsese seems to have a heavy influence on the direction of this picture, with many moments looking familiar to fans of the legendary American filmmaker. Close ups, sweeping scene shots, freeze-and-zoom shots, and a frenzied handheld approach are all trademarks that will be recognisably traceable to Scorsese, having been used throughout his career. Many shots remind the viewer of Scorsese's narrative dialogue-camera relationship in Goodfellas, in which the camera was used to brilliant effect to highlight the main points in the script. This technique is used heavily in the first twenty minutes of Cidade De Deus, with the freeze frame trick being used to introduce the story's main characters alongside the dialogue of narrator, Rocket.
Throughout the film one cannot help but watch a scene and think, 'I've seen that in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or Casino', and this may make some look less favourably on the film's direction. However, it is not fair to consider this 'a Brazilian Goodfellas', as one critic has observed. The story has parallels - the underlying ideas of gangsters, drugs and violence -, the direction is similar, and the story is told with narration, much like Ray Liotta's role in Scorsese's epic. But to regard this film in terms of what styles it repeats or nods it's hat to, is to be very ignorant. Fernando Meirelles, has done a wonderfully hypnotic job of blending the old styles, and bringing them up to date with flashy and sometimes dangerously kinetic direction and editing. Look only to the leaving-party scene in which strobe lighting is used to extraordinary effect, almost suffocating the story below a bombardment on the visual senses. Think of a crossover between the visual energy of the Matrix and the violence of the club scene in Bad Boys.
Cidade De Deus is much more than a directorial assault on the senses. As Raul Walsh said if you don't have a story you have nothing, and many flashy Hollywood films have fallen short in using 'ultra-modern' direction to disguise the fact that no substantial story exists underneath. Cidade De Deus is most brilliant in that it combines directorial and editorial brilliance with a story that is almost second to none in recent times. Only the true greats manage to cater to these two needs of cinema, and this is one that does. The direction is amazing, but not to disguise the story flaws, and the story is brilliant, but does not overwhelm directorial originality. But simply, Cidade De Deus is a perfect film for avid fans of cinematography, and those just in search of two hours of a bloody good story.
I cannot decide yet if I would consider this better than Amores Perros, but it is certainly not inferior. The at-the-same-time stylish and brutal visuals of Amores Perros are replaced by a grittier, more hands on approach to the subject. Whilst in Amores Perros the characters took precedent, in Cidade De Deus the location is as big a character as those who live there. As a result we get a much greater feeling of the environment in which the characters exist, and so it is perhaps easier to empathise, and/or sympathise with them. As the official press synopsis says, Cidade De Deus is a character, but is a place not a person. Amores Perros triumphs in creating relationships between the audience and the characters, as it concentrates for a long time on relatively few people, each of whom we grow to know and ultimately care about, which is important for the emotional impact of the film. Cidade De Deus deals with dozens, even hundreds, of characters, and so it is only a minority that we become attached to. This means that while the film leaves a lasting impact we are not left with the same inquisitiveness about the future for the characters that we meet in Amores Perros. Both films leave open ends, but Cidade De Deus feels closed. Whether you consider this a good or bad thing is a matter for personal choice.
Cidade De Deus is essential viewing, and is cinema at its most brilliant. It will of course feel the wrath of critics who will dwell on the almost unimaginably high body count, but there are always those who will reject violence in the movies. In fact the violence in Cidade De Deus, even the apocalyptic ending, is not as raw and bloody as many will expect. Blood spilling is a rare sight, and the violence rests mostly, but not always, on choreography rather than in your face bloodshed. The result is violence, but it is often so artistic that it looks beautiful rather than deterring. Like Scorsese's Taxi Driver the violence is abhorrent, but admirable from a cinematic perspective.
In short, this is a superb achievement, and is easily one of the best films of the year, and of the decade so far. Like it's predecessors, this is the latest film to come out of South America that indicates the emergence of major new talent in filmmaking. Hollywood beware.