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City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Rio de Janero is the only city in the world where the poorest residents have the best views. The favelas — the common name for the city's slum districts — first appeared in the 1920s, due to a rapid influx of rural poor into the growing urban area. With no money or resources to speak of, immigrants built Rio's first shantytown on the Morro da Favela hillside, and before long the settlement approached 1,000 dwellings. Today, there are more than 600 favela neighborhoods in Rio, all without proper zoning or utilities, and entirely free of both rent and building inspection — one shack can be started as little more than a clay hut, and then built up over time with wood, brick, and sheet metal. Notorious for crime, drug trafficking, malnourishment, and disease, the favelas became enough of a social headache that the local government decided in the '60s to create an alternative: the Cidade de Deus, on the outskirts of Rio. Here, on relatively flat land away from Rio's tourist centers, small purpose-built homes lined unpaved streets, and anyone picked up by the police and identified as unemployed or homeless could be relocated to the dust-covered neighborhood. But there still wasn't any electricity or plumbing, at first. As with the hillside favelas, dangerous butane gas in portable canisters was a primary source of energy. And before long the notorious drug trade that had created a low-grade civil war between the police and the hillside gangs soon found its way into the Cidade. In attempting to create an alternative to the favelas, the government did little more than expand crime and poverty to a new location, and to a new generation of Brazilian youth.

Based on true events, Fernando Meirelles' City of God (2002) recounts the surge in gang violence in the Cidade de Deus from the 1960s through the 1970s, starting with a group of three street-level hoodlums. Shaggy, Clipper, and Goose — known as "The Tender Trio" — are three boys on the edge of adulthood, living in the City of God with little hope of a future beyond the slums. They resort to hold-ups and petty thievery, sharing their proceeds with the settlement's young boys, who view the Tender Trio as heroes. But as crooks with more bravado than brains, the Trio's luck eventually runs out. By the '70s, Shaggy's younger brother Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) becomes a gangland icon in his own right, ruling with a benevolent hand over the City of God's drug trade. However, his boyhood friend Little Dice has rechristened himself Little Zé (Leandro Firmino), and where Benny chooses to be kind, Zé is inherently cruel. Meanwhile, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), younger brother of Goose, has chosen to steer clear of gangland activity, remaining on good terms with Benny while pursuing his interest in amateur photography. But when a turf war erupts between Little Zé and rival dealer Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), Benny tries to broker a peace, with disastrous consequences. And when a full-scale gang war erupts between the City's rival factions, modest bus conductor Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) finds himself and his family in Little Zé's crosshairs, causing the former Army marksman to join forces with Carrot. Meanwhile, Rocket tries to stay out of the fray, but his ability to maneuver through the Cidade as a photographer gets the attention of a Rio newsroom, who will pay well for his photos.

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With a 2002 premiere at Cannes, City of God traveled the festival circuit for more than a year, earning a limited theatrical release in the U.S. during 2003. A slow-burn hit, it has since won several awards, and even garnered four Oscar nominations for Directing, Editing, Writing, and Cinematography, competing not as a foreign film but instead in the major categories. And perhaps pigeonholing City of God as a "foreign" film would be unfair, with its many connotations. The film is subtitled, but that doesn't mean that it's ponderous or overly intellectual. It isn't a socially conscious film everyone "should" see. And it certainly isn't dull. Drawing from a variety of influences ranging from New Wave to New Hollywood, Meirelles and co-director Kátia Lund tackle an epic, often violent story with an energetic grasp of cinema's language, and in particular the screen's ability to render brutality poetic. Shot entirely on location in the back-streets of Rio (a decision Meirelles reportedly said he came to regret because of its sheer difficulty), a cast of non-actors was recruited for the film, many of them longtime residents of the Cidade. As the thoughtful, intelligent Rocket, Alexandre Rodrigues offers a look at a young person who believes there is a way out of the slum. He is the story's core and its conscience, although fellow unknown Leandro Firmino delivers the film's most chilling performance as the laughing, sociopathic Little Zé — a thug who understands that one can only rule by the gun after one has established a climate of terror and fear in which to wield it. As with life in the favelas, Meirelles does not shy away from violence — as a gangster movie, this picture easily rivals body-counts found in The Godfather and Scarface. However, as with the works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Guy Ritchie (whose influences can be seen here), The City of God is a picture of clever tone-shifts between harrowing drama and surprising comic touches, and one that eventually offers hope for the residents of Rio's most deeply entrenched shantytowns.

Buena Vista's DVD release of City of God features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.851) from a pristine source-print, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in Portuguese with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Supplements include the 1997 documentary "News from a Personal War" (56 min.), which investigates the drug trade in the favelas of Rio from the point of view of dealers, residents, and the police. Also included is a Miramax trailer gallery, although no trailer for this title. Keep-case.

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