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Twenty years on, City of God still bristles

City of God, one of the great modern gangster films, turns 20. Its influence has been particularly strong on film-makers in India

A still from ‘City of God’
A still from ‘City of God’

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If you frequented bootleg DVD stores in the mid-2000s in search of foreign films, there were a couple of titles you would always encounter. One was Emir Kusturica’s raucous Underground (1995). Another was Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001), which had the advantage of being a very good and a very sexy film. There was invariably a Béla Tarr title, regarded as a kind of cinephile litmus test. There was Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), surprisingly cited by S.S. Rajamouli as one of the inspirations for this year’s RRR. And there was another film by two Brazilian directors, the DVD cover of which was divided between the backs of a couple on the beach and a gang of young men, guns pointing at the camera.

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The directors were Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. City Of God was the name of their film, a violent, kinetic look at life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Lund had earlier made News From A Personal War (1999), about the powerful gangs that ran the slums, selling drugs and conducting bloody warfare with each other. This documentary plays like a dry run not only for City Of God but the equally violent and more conservative Elite Squad (2007), which looked at the favelas from the point of view of the cops. Its rough shooting style is carried forward in City Of God—to an extent. Loose, hypercharged, saturated colour films were in vogue then: Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000), Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002). While the 16mm stock gives Meirelles and Lund’s film griminess and an immediacy, there’s a flashiness that differentiates it from earlier Brazilian street dramas like the harrowing Pixote (1980).

City Of God tells the story of rival gangs in the favelas through the eyes of Rocket, who desperately wants to escape his life in the slums and become a photographer. A dizzying number of characters come and go; only some—like the brutal Li’l Ze, the charismatic Benny and the reluctant gangster Knockout Ned—last for a while. The violence is constant, at times funny, at times disturbingly thrilling. But it’s never far from horrifying, a constant reminder that this is not an enviable world, like Goodfellas (1990) or Bugsy (1991).

Looking at it now, I can see why this film in particular was such a hit with viewers here, discovering world cinema one knock-off DVD at a time. It’s not just the sizzle of César Charlone’s cinematography or the incredible razor’s-edge editing by Daniel Rezende (the film opens with a knife being whetted on a stone, each motion a cut). The film felt alive, dangerous. Its rhythms weren’t those of Hollywood. Those operating outside the US-Europe stranglehold on prestige cinema probably saw it and thought: This is possible here.

That promise was made reality. City Of God has had a deep influence on cinema in this country. The most commonly cited example is Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), which we called “the most influential Hindi film of the 2010s” in a story published earlier this year. City Of God was the edifice on which Gangs Of Wasseypur was built. Kashyap told us, referring to the initial treatment brought to him, “That’s a first-time writer thing, using a famous gangster movie as a template. What I read was City Of God set in Dhanbad.”

Gangs Of Wasseypur may have started with a Brazilian film in mind but Kashyap’s biggest inspiration was the Tamil crime films of the 2000s. Fittingly, it was Tamil cinema that first took the energy of City Of God and ran with it. Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai (2006) was visibly influenced by Meirelles and Lund’s film. You can see some City Of God in Pa. Ranjith’s 2014 political gang film Madras, and even more in his 2021 boxing film, Sarpatta Parambarai. Ranjith expressed his enthusiasm for the Brazilian film, saying: “There are characters in the dozens and yet, each one has an arc…. I feel it is this century’s most important film.”

Tha. Ramalingam, art director on Madras and Sarpatta Parambarai, said in an interview that film-makers started looking at north Chennai “from a visual point of view in a very City Of God-esque format”. Vetrimaaran’s gangster saga Vada Chennai (2018) is certainly City Of God-esque in its sprawl and darting pace. Malayalam director Lijo Jose Pellissery actually made a film called City Of God, which owed little to the Brazilian film—though Angamaly Diaries, his wildly exciting 2017 gangster film, probably did.

There are smaller examples of influence too—like actor Vijay Varma saying he based his breakout performance in the Hindi film Gully Boy (2019) on Li’l Ze. City Of God’s reputation as a modern classic seems secure in India—and in its home country. It placed at No.8 in a 2015 poll by the Brazilian Film Critics Association to select the 100 best Brazilian films of all time—though there were also critics there who were irritated by the impression it created of Rio and the country as a drug-addled Wild West. This, too, is something we can relate to: When Slumdog Millionaire (2008)—an outsider’s view, and a less accomplished film—became a smash hit and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar, many here complained that it would cloud how the West viewed Mumbai, and India.

Just last week, news emerged of a “sequel” to City Of God, a short film called Buscapé (“Rocket”), created by VMLY&R Brasil in partnership between Vivo and Motorola. Rocket returns to the favela to see the school his mentor has set up there. He’s still working as a photographer. The favela looks less fraught, though there’s still crime (Rocket stumbles on animal traffickers) and local bosses. The marketing demands and short running time mean this isn’t the smoothest of shorts but it’s worth it just to see actor Alexandre Rodrigues as a greying Rocket and Khalifa Idd playing Li’l Ze’s younger brother. He’s the spitting image of the brutal Ze but Rocket soon declares him “one easy-going motherfucker”. Even if it takes 20 years, change will come.

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