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CITY OF GOD (article first published : 2003-09-10)

See City of God and you will see one of the must-see films of the year - but be warned it is also one of the most difficult you'll ever watch, an orgy of vivid violence, fierce and brutal, that contains one of the most harrowing cinema scenes ever.

The unforgettable sequence involves two sobbing and terrified boys, both under the age of 10, being backed into a corner by a gang of slightly older children and asked to choose between being shot in the hand or the foot.

It unfolds slowly and will keep you on tenterhooks, squirming in your seat with hands over mouth, while you wish it to be over.

The scene is but one of countless disturbing images in City Of God, a 130-minute Brazilian drama in Portuguese with English subtitles that is inspired by true events and adapted from Paul Lins' 700-page, 352-character novel, which took eight years to research and write.

The focus is on sadistic child gangs in the ironically named Rio de Janeiro slum community of the title, where robbing, smoking pot, trading in drugs and gleeful killings are seen as making a boy a man.

Winner of the Bafta Award for editing - which is magnificent! - the film, unfolding like a documentary, delivers a powerful, multi-storied drama in which tales criss-cross and entangle between past and present, between the 60s and early 80s.

At the story's centre is how one of the slum's children, Wilson "Rocket" Rodrigues (Alexandre Rodrigues), came to be a photo-journalist who documented the horrors of his community, which became a danger zone when the cocaine trade turned street punks into sociopaths. Rocket narrates the story, which starts out as a portrait of early slum life in the 60s, a dark dollop of depression and degradation, peopled with bad eggs with hip names like Lil' Dice, Blackie and Knockout Ned.

The film then follows two kids of the time over three decades.

Directed with flashy invention and great style by Fernando Meirelles and Latia Lund, who make wonderful use of voice-over and split-screen techniques, the movie was shot in a housing project called Cidade Alta.

And word is that community's drug trade was run by a guy named Paulo Sergio Magno, who just happened to be arrested in a cinema lobby while attending a special screening of the film.

The movie's success had another happy ending - in January, Brazil's government announced the implementation of a pilot public safety project in City of God, aimed at raising living standards there. In collaboration with the community and the Rio de Janeiro municipality, the programme is to be financed with funds from the National Fund for Public Safety destined for the prevention of violence.

Dubbed by one critic as “The Lord of the Flies with guns, playing like a Quentin Tarantino hallucation”, City of God is most certainly not for the squeamish. But it remains a fascinating, dazzling slice-of-life horror, an immaculately made film with astonishing performances from a cast mostly plucked from the slums.

I give it full marks: 10/10. – Billy Suter




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