City of God

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, January 7, 2003


If you loved Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and have been waiting for a similarly smart, stylish, hyperkinetic gangster flick, you're in luck: No, not Scorsese's oddly uninspired "Gangs of New York," but the killer Brazilian import "City of God," which debuts in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Brazil's nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, "City of God" is so entertaining that it should get a national rollout despite its subtitles.

Like "Gangs of New York," it is set in a Dantesque slum, a Rio de Janeiro housing project overoptimistically named the City of God. The movie, which must feature 75 shootings, will not do wonders for Brazil's tourism industry (although its not quite as stomach-churningly gory as "Gangs").

Back in 1978, before Rio became a global by-word for violent crime, my father and I naÔvely took a peaceful early morning stroll through the "favela" above Ipanema Beach, a mountainside smear of tar-paper and plywood shanties enjoying staggering views of Rio's stupendous coastline. When we got back to our beachfront hotel, the tour guide was frantic, fearing we'd been seized by the slum dwellers and sold for spare parts.

Rio's seaside favelas, where the mostly black residents glare down upon the nearby penthouses of Brazil's opulent white elite, all surrounded by nature at its most sublime, offer richly ironic locales for a movie. Surprisingly, though, "City of God" is set in a flat, dusty, drab neighborhood of tiny single-family homes that the government built in the 1960s to move poor people as far away from the wealthy beaches as possible.

Rio is not best-policed city in the world, with the cops mostly engaged in pocketing bribes to look the other way, except when called upon to beat up urchins pestering rich people. Unfettered by the law, the City of God's youth quickly took up armed robbery, graduating to cocaine dealing in the 1970s, and to mass gang warfare in the early 1980s.

Based on Paulo Lins' sprawling autobiographical novel of Dickensian heft, "City of God" tells the interlocking stories of a host of local lads -- some murderers, some nice guys, and some an unstable combination of the two.

Fernando Meirelles, Brazil's snazziest TV commercial director, and his co-director, documentarian Katia Lund, auditioned 2,000 slum kids and trained 106 of act in the movie. While none of these adolescent newcomers gives a performance to rival Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs," several acquit themselves at least as well as Leonardo DiCaprio did.

Although Brazilians proudly claim to have no color line, they sure seem to have a color continuum. Almost every slum kid in the cast is what Americans would call black, while the top nine filmmakers are all white, with the exception of the mixed race novelist.

To make this panoramic tale comprehensible, screenwriter BrŠulio Mantovani employs "Goodfellas"-style narration and lots of documentary tricks, such as repeating scenes to reveal new twists.

Meirelles delivers extraordinary cinematic razzle-dazzle for a movie with a $3.3 million budget. This film barrels along for its full 135 minutes.

One advantage "City of God" has over "Goodfellas" and most other prestigious mob movies is a non-criminal hero to identify with. I know I'm weird, but I generally don't like gangster movies, even "The Godfather," because the characters are murderers and I want them all to die in the electric chair.

Here, though, the narrator, played by an appealing amateur who looks like a younger, shorter version of Magic Johnson, is too decent to turn to crime. One night he decides to become a stick-up bandit, but ends up chatting amiably with all his intended victims. Eventually, he gets a job at a newspaper photographing the drug war that white journalists can't get in to cover.

Gangsters make popular movie subjects all over the world because they lead Hobbesian lives full of interest. Some sociological differences between Italian-American mob movies and this Brazilian imitator are apparent, though.

Most of the characters in "Goodfellas," for example, have survived to middle age, while the "City of Angels" punks are dead before they turn 21. The suspicious and calculating Sicilians don't have as much fun as the spontaneous Brazilians, but do live longer.

Organized crime in New Jersey is simply more organized than in Rio's favelas. The Mafia crime families follow the Mediterranean patriarchal principle where the sons patiently wait for the old man to die and leave them the family business. In the Brazilian slums, though, fathers don't stick around much, so gangs are mostly ephemeral coalitions of pubescent pals.

At the chilling end of "City of God," the arch-villain crime lord is finally gunned down, only to be immediately replaced by the next generation of killers, "The Runts," a gang of even more vicious twelve year olds.

Rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug content, and language.


Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.


To read my latest film reviews, subscribe to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after the films have come and gone) home page

iSteve film reviews

email me


Steve Sailer's homepage 

iSteve film reviews

email me