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City of God is a rarity. It isn’t only a great film, it’s a socially important film that acts to educate its audience without lecturing. This is a truly magical motion picture potion that transcends genre and medium expectations, blurring the line between reality and drama, and infusing its audience with genuine life. Without a genre signifier, it manages to outshine a heavy bulk of mainstream genre-specific output. It’s funnier than most comedies with little effort. It’s more emotionally satisfying than most dramas thanks to its natural performances (the vast majority of the cast is filled out by actual Brazilian street kids), and addictive narrative through line, itself based with surprising accuracy on real life events. It’s more exciting that most action films, despite a lack of building-punching robots, through expertly tweaked editing and camera movement. It’s also more terrifying than most horror films thanks to teeth gnashing violence, nail-biting suspense, and above all, heart-wrenching tragedy. I often include City of God in my list of the most frightening non-horror films ever made, even if such a distinction doesn’t do its other amazing attributes justice. Images of children killing and maiming children are certainly startling, even nauseating, but City of God is so twisted tightly with energy and vitality the emotional burden is easily whisked aside in favour of forward momentum (‘forward momentum’ being a relative term, considering all the flashbacks).

 City of God DVD
 City of God Blu-ray
Director Fernando Meirelles has never quite lived up to the promise of City of God, but only really because he hasn’t done a whole lot. The Constant Gardener was a pretty fantastic film, but I found that he indulged a little too much in the experimental styles he explored so effectively here. I still haven’t seen Blindness, but have read some dishearteningly negative things. It feels like Meirelles should have a career closer to Alejandro González Iñárritu or Danny Boyle (who was obviously influenced by Meirelles when he made Slumdog Millionare), and in an ideal world he’d take Steven Soderbergh’s ‘one for them, one for me’ approach. I’d love to see his take on a big superhero property, and more independent, emotional work as well. From what I understand, and please correct me if I’m wrong, co-director Kátia Lund acted more as an actor’s director than a visualist, though her documentary background likely had an influence over the final look. I don’t mean to marginalize her input, and assume the stand-out, natural, non-actor performances are largely her doing, but she hasn’t worked outside of the City of God property (she worked on the follow-up television series City of Men), so it’s difficult to judge her growth as a filmmaker.

It’s arguable that Meirelles goes overboard with style a few times throughout City of God, and the frenetic cutting and camera music could easily put some viewers off. I do recall becoming dizzy when I saw the film in theaters. But Meirelles maintains immediacy in his cinéma vérité, and the hyper-stylized moments are exclamation points rather than random show-offedness. There are also arguments to be made against Meirelles and Lund aping/reappropriating the storytelling style of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but the familiarity of the template ends up softening the blow of the bigger culture shock issues. On the other hand, the similarities between City of God and Goodfellas also act to point out the profound social difference between Brazil and New York. It celebrates both the parallels of criminal lifestyles (both films are largely set in the same eras too), and the vast cultural and economic differences.

 City of God DVD
 City of God Blu-ray

Video


Though it never achieved blockbuster status, City of God had, in my opinion, a sizable impact on film imagery. Steven Soderbergh had already firmly established Latin America as particularly warm and blown-out place visually speaking, but director Fernando Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone really push the stylistic aspects of their images in a way dozens of Latin American set films have since (not to mention Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionare). The raw nature of the photography, which was shot using mixed 16mm and 35mm formats, keeps this HD release from utter-necessity territory, but the vibrant pallet and high contrast shadows don’t entirely work in standard definition. This 1080p transfer is likely as perfect as the material can ever look, and more or less what I remember the film looking like when I saw it in theaters back in 2002.

The vibrant nature of the colours is a decent improvement over the DVD, which didn’t look bad, but wasn’t quite this sharply separated or bright. The heavily colour-timed sequences (usually blue or yellow of some kind) feature just a smidge of low-level noise, and the highlights (often reds and greens) pop more fiercely. I’m most impressed with the slightly more naturalistic sequences, which are still blown out (if it’s anywhere near white it will blow out), but feature more subtle differentiations in tone, and generally more eclectic palettes. Detail levels are quite sharp in close-up, especially skin and set-based textures, but the common use of shallow focus, and the limitations of the occasionally utilized 16mm format. The extreme nature of some of the contrast levels, coupled with the purposefully blown-out look creates some minor issues with edge enhancement and less than attractive hot-spots, but as is the case of most of the shortcomings, I think this was generally what I remember the film looking like in theaters. These problems aside, black levels are extremely rich and pure. The celebratory use of film grain in certain sequences is gorgeous here, unlike the DVD copy, where fine granules are flattened into a bit of a grey paste. Among the grain there are occasional flecks of white, but these too add to the overall texture.

 City of God DVD
 City of God Blu-ray

Audio


Among the many attributes of modern digital sound is the fact that smaller budgeted films can actually sound more impressive than blockbuster releases with enough effort. City of God features a very aggressive hyperrealist sound mix that helps propel the film along its breathless track. This aggressive nature doesn’t slather over the entire film, but there are many choice moments of big sound, along with busy stereo and surround channels. Overall the front channels get the bigger directional workout, but there are plenty of examples of rear channel expression. The most intricate moments, like the opening ‘chicken run’, are a sea of movement, and blend the rhythm of the scene with the rhythm of the music. The musical score, by Ed Cortês and Antonio Pinto, is sparingly used as to not pull the audience out of the basically cinéma vérité film, and is augmented by a few pieces of period pop music. Gunshots are given special character throughout, from simple pops, to LFE ringing cannon shots. The natural quality of the dialogue scenes, (which were captured on the spot, and spoken by non-actors in their first film) lead to some issues with overall dialogue clarity. The less stylized scenes are also a bit thin. Though these sequences are less impressive, these ups and downs give the mix a large dynamic range, and this uncompressed mix deals in the extremes a bit better than the Dolby Digital DVD.

 City of God DVD
 City of God Blu-ray

Extras


The extras here are consist of a few Lionsgate trailers and News from a Personal War (56:40, SD), a documentary shot between 1997 and 1998 about the ongoing drug war in Rio de Janeiro. It follows the conflict from all sides of the conflict, spending time with the dealers/gangsters, the police, and the innocent bystanders. It also deals in vintage footage, and the history of the conflict, from the ‘60s through the late ‘90s. This doc is co-directed by City of God co-director Kátia Lund, and João Moreira Salles, and takes a fly-on-the-wall/interview approach, which can lose the narrative flow at times, and appear a bit random, but overall it is informative and sobering. I recommend interested parties also look into José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s Bus 174[I], a documentary following a notorious hostage situation on a Rio de Janeiro city bus in 2000.

 City of God DVD
 City of God Blu-ray

Overall


Every cinephile owes it to themselves to have a copy of [I]City of God
in their personal collection. It’s genuinely one of the best and most important films of the last decade, and I believe its reputation will only increase in prestige over the following decades. This Blu-ray release isn’t quite a massive enough upgrade over the original DVD to require a double dip, but the 1080p video is an improvement, and the DTS-HD MA sound is very, very sharp. The included documentary, News from a Personal War also comes highly recommended.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD releases and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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