#26: City of God (Cidade de Deus) — dir. Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund
I remember first seeing this in film school. Without preamble or statement, our professor just put the DVD in and played it for us. What followed blew my goddamn mind out the back of my head.
It’s not just an astonishing story of impoverished youth getting drawn in and out of the crimelords of the favelas in Brazil. That alone would have been breathtaking. It’s like a Brazilian Boyz N The Hood, or pretty much any quality story of ghetto escapism. But then the end credits roll, and you discover it’s based on a true story. That not only was this story phenomenal and haunting and awesome, but that it pretty much exactly happened.
THEN, you discover that Meirelles and Lund could not find enough black actors in Brazil, so they basically just cast all untrained performers and put them through “an acting school.” Including, and my introduction to, Seu Jorge, a famous musician who would go on to be in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and do that album of excellent David Bowie cover songs in Portuguese.
It was lightning in a bottle for Meirelles, who made a few more major market films before kind of fizzling out. He’s still producing and directing, but this was his opus. This was his moment to shine. The same deal for Lund. They actually tried to make a television show out of the movie, but it just didn’t have that same visceral energy and horror to it.
City of God has gone on to appear on numerous lists for movies you must see before you die, and world cinema, and even drug/gangster films. It used to be much higher on my list. It probably still should be, more likely than not up around the middle of the top twenty. But if you’ve never seen it, do yourself the favor. It’s not a happy film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s so well done.