A lot of movies are fun to watch. As a form of entertainment, being fun is a big thing that movies are supposed to do. The movie industry puts out endless action flicks and romantic comedies and CGI extravaganzas for this express purpose, and they often succeed, even if these films fail at being anything else. Sylvester Stallone movies can be fun to watch.
It’s a pity, then, that good movies can be so boring. Independent films, subtitles and experimental narratives do not exactly scream the possibility of fun. Yet, “City of God” (2002) – available for instant streaming on Netflix – is all of these things, and it is also very fun.
It may seem odd to enjoy a movie that has its setting in extreme poverty and its characters entrapped in a cycle of violence, but director Fernando Meirelles pulls it off with the style of Quentin Tarantino and the heart of Danny Boyle.
“City of God” is the story of Buscapé – “Rocket” in the subtitles – who grows up in the slums of Cidade de Deus (City of God), outside of Rio de Janeiro, and dreams of escape, photography and getting the girl.
It’s also the story of a whole cast of characters – gangs, young psychopaths, lovers, killers, dealers – who make up this city, which is as vibrant as it is deadly, a place where goodness won’t save you from the random evil, a shantytown where, in spite of its hopeful name, “God forgets about you.”
“City of God” seems to have it all: desperation, terrible sorrow, unremitting violence, humor, love, sex, drugs, a chicken chase, novel banana usage, internship tips. There are a lot of incredibly sad moments, and some scenes are shockingly violent even for a violence-saturated medium. But none of it seems gratuitous – there is blood, but less in the whole movie than 30 seconds of “300: Rise of an Empire,” and all of the violence here only reinforces the horror and hopelessness of the lives of the poor forgotten.
The comedic moments, too, come at just the right time. When Rocket decides to try at a life of crime, he can’t bring himself to steal from a cool guy or a girl that gives him her number. Later, when a photo he took of a gang leader and his crew ends up in the paper, Rocket fears for his life at exposing the criminals, but the gangster is just overjoyed at making the news.
The talent of the actors, especially Leandro Firmino da Hora as manic gang leader Li’l Zé, helps make these characters interesting and relatable even when steeped in immorality. But the experimental structure, where narratives go back and forth in time, is what really allows each individual to have their own character arc. The cinematography, with surprising angles in between vérité-style shots and an air of experimentation. brings boldness and a frenzied pulse to the movie.
Few people escape the slums in “City of God.” There’s no mistaking the senseless terror of the place – there is gun violence and killing and there are children who eagerly engage in both, following the only way of life they know. But there are also days on the beach with friends, great opportunities for photography, parties with James Brown music and, sometimes, hope. In the City of God where there is so much death, there is also a whole lot of life.
Joe Zimmermann is a junior English and journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.