The slash of a sharpened knife grabs our attention and from that point on there is no turning away from City of God. The story is fed to us by Rocket, a character we initially know very little about except he will help us make sense of all that follows. The setting of the story is the slums of Brazil during the 60s and 70s. People are poor, crime is rampant, and adolescents wave guns around like they were toys.
Rocket’s older brother Goose was a part of The Tender Trio along with teenagers Shaggy and Clipper. They have a lucrative revenue stream robbing businesses and gasoline trucks and they share the profits with the people of the town in return for protection. Then a little twerp named Li’l Dice convinces them to rob a hotel and the job pays off big. But soon after begin the police raids and the trio is split up for good. Clipper joins the church, Shaggy is shot by the cops, and Li’l Dice knocks off Rocket’s brother. From that point, the drug trade slowly grew, and ultimately was left in the hands of a young thug named Carrot.
Now it’s the 1970s and Rocket cultivates a love for photography while hanging out with his hippie friends. Meanwhile, Li’l Dice now known as Li’l Z has taken over the drug trade and pushed almost everyone out except Carrot. He is obsessed with being the boss and ironically under his rule, the City of God remains in relative peace. Z’s childhood friend Benny is a relaxed guy who keeps his buddy at bay and earns the admiration of everyone even Rocket.
But the “good times” must come to an end as Benny decides to skip out on the slums with his girlfriend because he does not want the life of a drug lord anymore. At a giant bash tragedy strikes, and Li’l Z is looking for blood. His target is Knockout Ned and the man’s girlfriend. After a night of turmoil, Li’l Z is never at peace again, because there is now a man with a personal vendetta bent on making him pay.
Carrot uses this new ally to his advantage and thus begins the drug war to end all drug wars. Carrot and Ned vs. Li’l Z. Both sides bring anyone and everyone into the fray and load up on guns, guns, ammunition, and more guns. It’s at this time that Rocket’s dreams become realized. He gets a job as a lowly paper boy and ultimately snags some photos of Z and his thugs making it big with the local paper. Soon his photography is in high demand and he’s even on Li’l Z’s good side.
Thus begins the beginning of the end as the rival forces meet in one last skirmish. In the aftermath Ned is shot by a vengeful boy, Li’l Z is jailed then shot, and Carrot is fodder for the papers. The little Runts now plan to run the streets and Rocket becomes famous for his photography. The film holds onto one last secret until the end before it is revealed. As we guessed this film is based on a real story and his name is not Rocket but Wilson Rodrigues.
City of God is an ironic name for such a godless place and likewise, I haven’t felt so squeamish in a film recently and perhaps ever. There is so much violence and crime in this film but we do not seem to get numb to it. It feels like we become more aware of the reality and the vicious cycle that continues its cyclical path. These young thugs are products of their environment and so how they end up is truly saddening. Even such a despicable, sadistic man such as Li’l Z knows what friendship is (ie. Benny), but ultimately even Benny cannot help him. That’s what makes the success of Rocket so extraordinary. In many ways, he is the perfect narrator, first because he survived, but also because he has a view into everything from varying angles and different perspectives.
As far as the film goes, the non-linear story line and multiple points of view made for an engaging story. This piece of storytelling keeps us begging for more crumbs as we attempt to connect the pieces as they are fed to us. Maybe it is a bit of morbid curiosity that keeps us interested or a desire to know if justice is dealt. The quick editing can be disconcerting at times and the often bobbing camera can sometimes get annoying but it fits the style of the whole film. It is part On the Waterfront, part The Godfather, but set in Brazil and a whole lot grittier. City of God reflects the hierarchy of the drug trade that permeates all areas of life and governs an entire community. Rocket was one of the lucky ones.