City of God

Last year, I watched “Bus 174,” a 2004 documentary about a street kid in Rio de Janeiro who held a bus hostage for four hours. Like all good documentaries, it’s more than that; in examining this lost youth Sandro, the movie explores the dark underbelly of a culture that embraces the wealthy and turns their backs on the slums.

It is both incredible journalism and a fantastic film, and because of that experience, I was a bit hesitant to watch “City of God,” Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 film. “City of God” is also about slum kids in Rio, and while it’s based on a true story about gang rivalries, I was afraid the real story would get lost in the Hollywood treatment.

Sometimes, I really hate being right.

Don’t take that to mean that “City of God” is a bad movie, because it isn’t. It’s very well made, the cast of unknown actors do a service to the craft, and the direction and script never lag. What I had issue with is with the scope of the story.

I’ve never read the book it’s based on, but I’m willing to bet it’s a sprawling, intricate story filled with lots of flashbacks and backstory for every major character introduced. That’s pretty much how the movie goes, and while it provides the much-needed exposition, the information never goes beneath the surface.

There’s no real intimacy in “City of God.” There is a de facto main character, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), but he’s mostly on the sidelines watching everything happen around him. We spend the whole film watching the violence and chaos that surround the players, but it doesn’t make an impact; you watch “City of God,” and you move on.  After watching “Bus 174,” I immediately had to watch two episodes of “South Park” just to recover from the devastating impact of that film.

It’s possible that if I hadn’t seen “Bus 174″ I would have been moved by “City of God.” But when you’ve seen it done right, how can you go back to almost right?

“City of God” (2002)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Written by John Kaylin

Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket)

 Leandro Firmino (Li’l Z)

 Phellipe Haagensen (Benny)