#TBT: City of God (Meirelles/2002)

City of God is Brazil’s most critically acclaimed film of recent years. Based on the book of
the same name by writer Paulo Lins, which in-turn was based on a true story, City of God
(Cidade de Deus) is a violent, fast-paced movie that tells the tale of the residents of this
Brazilian favela (slum). The film follows the lives of many characters that live within this small, ramshackle shanty town. In particular we see two small boys grow up to take two very different paths: one a photographer, the other a drug dealer. (Read more)


The Making of

“Our goal with City of God was to do away with the prejudice that exists about favelas. Yes, there is crime in Rio, and we portrayed that, but we wanted to show that people from the slums can lead normal lives and improve their situation if they take advantage of their opportunities.

“During the nine weeks of filming, we were in constant contact with the residents’ association, and they helped us every step of the way. I would go to people’s houses and meet the parents of people working in the movie. When a project is presented in a caring manner, you can enter and leave such communities: the drug traffickers were there doing their work, and we were there doing ours. We wanted to show what they do, but we did not want to be involved with them.

“Some residents liked the result and others did not – but you can’t please everyone. In the end, we only wanted to tell the truth about something that is very sad. Everyone was surprised and delighted when the movie was such a huge success. In the 12 years since it came out, many cast members have changed careers, but some are still acting. City of God left its mark on everyone who saw it. People still talk about it today.” – Lamartine Ferreira, assistant director (Read the full article HERE)


Cinematography in the Opening Montage

The opening montage of the City of Gods successfully introduces the ideas of the film, and gives us visual signifiers of what is to come. The first shot depicts a kitchen knife in an extreme close-up being sharpened on the counter. We see this image a few times intercut in the first few minutes. In terms of colour, it is very cold, with a range of blues and greys making up the colour palette. The opening scene also uses “color isolation” in a couple of shots, which is where one color is present, and the others are dulled down almost to monochrome. This is especially evident when an unknown female is cutting a carrot. The orange is extremely vivid, and portrays the idea of freshness, suggested further by the killing of several chickens. 

This montage is made up of several very extreme close-ups and dutch angles, giving a confused but fun feel to the film. When the chicken escapes, there is extensive use of moving camera. First, there is a high angle shot, which moves above the chicken running, and its owners chasing it. There are then some level tracking shots following the animal, which suggests that it is the audience chasing it. This range of very contrasting shots builds upon the confused and stylized feel of the scene.

This montage leads directly onto a very contrasting scene, where the narrator is a small boy. This world is full of pastel colors, browns, yellows and golds, to give us both geographic and visual signifiers of the geography of the scene. However, the range of colors does not create a rich looking picture, instead they are dulled down so they look boring and the landscape just looks hot. This could be a visual signifier of being stuck in isolation, and never really being able to shine through.” (Read more)



The two gangster films that City of God appears to borrow from most are Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and his latter film Casino, which bears strong similarities to its predecessor in terms of style. One of the most notable stylistic flourishes of the three films is their use of narration. The two Scorsese films consist of protagonists narrating a vast majority of the scenes, and City of God does the same; the voice of Rocket, our narrator, is ever present and we hear more of him throughout the film than we actually see of him. Each of the three films involves the narrator providing us with character histories and detailed accounts of events, and in all three, arguably shocking events are handled in an almost ‘matter-of-fact’ way; Henry Hill generally maintains a consistent tone of voice throughout Goodfellas and Rocket of ‘City of God’ rarely shows any emotion concerning the information he presents us with. Indeed, one of the ways in which Rocket’s narration is different from that found in the Scorsese films concerns his lack of significance in the overall story. Whilst Henry Hill is present in the displayed events of Goodfellas, much of what Rocket narrates is information that he has gotten without first-hand experience. Meirelles seems to use Rocket in the more traditional third-person sense, so that the viewer receives a barrage of information, rather than following the exploits of a singular character.

The other most interesting influence that Martin Scorsese has on Meirelles’ film relates to the pacing, and thus the editing. Avoiding the almost epic length of “issue” films such as Blood Diamond and the aforementioned The Killing Fields, Meirelles’ film’s pace is unusually fast for its genre. As previously stated, the viewer is fed a ton of information in each scene but the film does not feel necessarily feel like it is bogged down with exposition. Like with the Scorsese films, a variety of editing techniques are used. For much of the film there seems to be a lot of frantic cutting. This is done to both demonstrate the chaos of the favelas but also to keep the attention of viewers. In this sense, the filmmakers have been influenced by the MTV style of editing, which involves an arguably excessive amount of frequent cuts.

The most interesting thing about the cinematography is its use in the three different eras in the film. In the early stages where Rocket is a child, there is a gold tint to everything, representing both the heat and the idea that this was the golden age of the favela. Due to the generally relaxed atmosphere, and the space in the favela, there is a lack of creative shots. Once we reach the era of Li’l Zé’s rise to power, everything changes. With the space now replaced with large buildings cramped together, Meirelles abandons the gold tint and instead incorporated grimier colours like grey and brown. With such an imposing environment, the character of Li’l Zé needs to appear powerful, so many of his scenes are shot from a low angle. This both makes him look taller and thus imposing like the buildings, but it also looks as though the camera is representing the eyes of one of his victims; in a few cases, this is actually the case. The final stage of the film, with Knockout Ned’s war with Zé has more of a documentary feel to it. There are a lack of tints to scenes, and the final battle is shot in such a way that it looks like the cameraman is actually caught up in the midst of a gang battle. As everything goes to hell, the stylistic flourishes appear to almost diminish, which is an intriguing choice. (Read more)

Find out where the actors of City of God are today in the documentary, City of God – Ten Years Later.

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