City of God (2002) (R)

"City of God" is a staggering movie. A monumental film in the history of cinema, and deserving of the praise it is given. Predating other films like "Slumdog Millionaire" by years, "City of God" is the answer to all the problems that I've had with how adolescence is portrayed in films.
I didn't mean to line up these last two reviews the way I have...these things just kind of happen. With "The 400 Blows" we have an adult looking back on the time of unfairness in his childhood that turned him sour...Truffaut made sequels to the film, but they never reached the peak of fame that his debut piece sits at. With Reiner's "Stand by Me" the children are perhaps even younger and they are well on their way down the same path that Antoine is headed down. But in both these cases, we have children acting like adults and adults acting like children. Why is that?
The perspective has shifted. There are adult ideas inside a child actor being told to act as an adult. They are adults as children and not vice versa. "City of God" shows children trying to be more adult, but still being children. It's a movie with breakneck speed and all the cinematic joys you could possibly ask for.
Set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro "City of God" has only one clear main character: Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). For much of the film, we hop around in time, trying to grasp the meaning of all the stories that our narrator keeps throwing at us.
There are flashbacks inside flashbacks, characters that seem unimportant that will shape the entire scope of the movie—the script must have been a pain to write. It's easy to see how this film got forgotten at the Oscars when you consider that "The Return of the King" was sweeping up all the awards that night; but I think that "City of God" is trying to leave the viewer with something a little more meaningful than Peter Jackson is.
Rocket lives around danger. Guns will go off in the night, men murder their wives and bury them in the house for sleeping around, hoodlums (or "hoods") are abundant everywhere. Once you reach the age of twelve you are a hood in training. If you should choose not to be, you might get somewhere if you sell fish on the street or if you stay in school, but that isn't likely. Where the easy and fast action is is selling drugs and being a hood.
Rocket grows up in the slums, is brother is part of the Tender Trio, a group of celebrated young hoods who feel like the kings of the world. They steal whenever it pleases them and evade the cops by tearing through the maze of houses and staying on their feet. One night, things go bad for the Tender Trio, it becomes impossible to escape the cops—their time will end.
Told in a Tarantino-esque/quasi-Boyle fashion, "City of God" is relentlessly entertaining; but more than that, it is unsentimental to perfection. It condemns the violence without having to condemn the violence. It lets the death and the shoot-outs slowly creep inside the viewer. Considering this is how some children grew up, with a gun in their hand, told to shoot their neighbor, it's surprising that the film doesn't go overboard at many times.
We begin the movie, instantly connecting with Rocket. We are concerned for him when it looks like he's in danger. But as flashback leads into backstory after backstory, we begin to realize that "City of God" is not a story that can be told about one boy—it involves an entire city. The remarkable achievement is that this portrayal of the city never comes across as false or phony.
Inspiring so many works, our hero is 'the nice guy' who thinks that good men always finish last—he could be right. 
When given the opportunity to hold people up gun point, Rocket always chickens out. He finds some excuse, the people he is going to take from always seem like cool people. 
His actions are contradicted with the actions of Li'l Zé, the biggest hood in the slums. Li'l Zé doesn't mind killing, in fact, sometimes it seems like he gets a great pleasure out of it. The embodiment of evil, Li'l Zé is the driving force of the film, the one that we all grow to hate.
Rocket never wants to be a hood, he never craves that life—essentially all he wants to do is lose his virginity; but that's another issue entirely.
"City of God" never damns any of the actions you see on screen, even the horrendous ones. It takes a documentarian's style and places that inside a film. Though based in part on fact, "City of God" has taken obvious liberties, yet it pulls them off nearly perfectly.
A stunning film, a memorable experience.

Score: ★★★★

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