It's the film adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, set in Cidade de Deus (i.e. "City of God") where he grew up. The book took him ten years to write and the film was nominated for four Oscars. It's about drug gangs.
This is quite a famous one. It won a ton of awards and was named on lots of top ten lists of the best films of the year. It's good, obviously, but not as terrifying as I'd expected. It's never leering or exploitative. It's less brutal and harrowing than Steven Soderbergh's not dissimilar Traffic, for instance. The City of God isn't Hell. It's just a Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood where lots of people are poor and the easiest way to make money is with a gun or drugs. There are good people. Criminals aren't seen as Robin Hoods, or anything like that. Even the criminals themselves aren't necessary evil, being perfectly capable of taking up a regular job or joining the church.
However there are also psychos who take pleasure from killing. A hood might think he's escaping his old life, but that's no guarantee that he'll get out alive.
The film has a relaxed, freewheeling attitude to its narrative. It has a narrator who's not trying to shove events into a simple, Hollywood-approved shape. He'll introduce us to people or places and stop the plot to tell us "The Story of the Apartment", "The Story of the Tender Trio", etc. Alternatively, sometimes he might say that someone we're looking at has a story that will be important, but that right now isn't the right time to tell it.
There's a 1960s segment. Cidade de Deus was founded in 1960 as a place to put slum-dwellers who'd previously been living in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. That's what the sixties segment looks like. It's desert-coloured, with harsh yellow light. It looks Third World, with a few widely spaced rows of buildings that couldn't possibly be called an urban environment. Nonetheless, there are lots of people being moved here and some of them have guns. These are very young men, or sometimes even children. That doesn't make them any less dangerous, though. L'il Dice's happiness is a shocking thing to see, for instance.
There's a 1970s segment. Children have grown up into psychos, only for even more out-of-control children to have come along. There's a criminal gang whose members probably haven't all reached puberty. What happens to them is ugly and vile. However it's not a pit of moral degradation. "I couldn't do it. He was such a cool guy."
There's a 1980s segment. Oh, and there's also a worried chicken right at the beginning, in a scene that might as well be captioned "metaphor for the main character's life" in flashing neon subtitles.
Then, after that, the film steps up a gear. There's a drug war, which escalates from a simple beginning to last a length of time that boggles the mind. A year? A whole year? There's collateral damage and the murder of innocents. Good men drift across the line that separates them from bad men. "I'm not a hood." The police are as bad as any gangster, yet the film isn't without rough natural justice. Murder will be remembered and, perhaps, paid back in kind, even if the murderer forgets.
What makes the film important is its realism. It's full of amateur actors, all of whom were recruited from favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Some actually lived in Cidade de Deus itself. After filming, the crew couldn't let the cast return to their old slum-dwelling lives, so help groups were set up to help everyone in the production build better lives for themselves. Many of its scenes were unscripted, such as the last shot of the film (the boy losing his slipper) or the scene where the gang prays before the war. One of the actors asked the director if the group wasn't going to pray, because the real gang he'd been in had always used to pray before any important confrontation with their enemies. The director told the boy to lead the prayer and included it in the movie.
The film wasn't shot in Cidade de Deus itself, mind you. That would have been too dangerous. It was shot in a neighouring, slightly safer area, but even there, the director later said that if he'd known the dangers of filming in a Rio favela, he wouldn't have made this movie. Nonetheless there's only a thin line between this fiction and the reality it was based on. Characters have real-life equivalents and sometimes the relatives of those originals make cameo appearances in the movie.
This is a strong film, but it also has a lightness of touch that I think would have escaped many filmmakers. There music has joi de vivre, for instance. It's a story of young people. They're capable of being immature and even ridiculous, as with their delight in getting their photos taken. It's powerful, but not gruelling. To quite an extent, it's real people documenting their lives and history, in a way that's dissimilar from the expected Very Serious Drama you'd expect on this kind of subject. It's not pumped up for maximum impact. It just is. It's telling it as it was. The shot of dead bodies lying on blocks of concrete is recreating an award-winning photograph from that drug war, for instance, but the director's not clubbing us over the head with it. It's a film of life, colour and distressingly young criminals. It's also important.
"Are you crazy? You're just a kid."
"A kid? I smoke, snort. I've killed and robbed. I'm a man."