'City of God': Hispanic Heritage Month Must-See Movies

Martin Scorsese meets the mean streets of the favela. Today, for Hispanic Heritage Month, we're watching the powerful and Oscar-nominated "City of God."

Matt Lissauer

By Matt Lissauer

Jonathan Haagensen in City of God

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on a novel -- which, in turn, is loosely based on a true story -- "City of God (Cidade de Deus)" comes at you with guns-a-blazin' right off the screen. It moves fast, hits hard, and leaves a lasting impression. It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking that owes a lot of debt to filmmakers like Scorsese. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's cinematic journey through the mean streets of the very real Cidade de Deus on the outskirts of Rio opened many people's eyes to the realities of the favelas. The four-time Oscar-nominated "City of God" stands as one of the best films of the 21st Century and is an absolute must-see movie for Hispanic Heritage Month.

The Movie

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

We open on a chicken. The bird watches in horror as his feathered friends get prepped for slaughter, or what we humans call a barbecue. The chicken breaks free and flees with unbridled determination to survive for another day. It's a fitting metaphor for the life we are about to experience.

As we follow the chicken, we meet Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), our guide through the madness and mayhem. Rocket is a budding photojournalist caught between two sides. On the one side stands Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a cold-blooded drug lord and his gang of thieves. On the other side stands the police. They have the guns to maintain control, but they don't have the authority to keep the peace beyond their roles. To understand this stand-off, Rocket tells us, we must go back to the beginning.

We flashback to the 1960s. It's the beginning of the eponymous favela. Its people hope for a better life. But the means to achieve that honorably is non-existent. Rocket introduces us to the "Tender Trio," a band of "Robin Hoods" in this shantytown outside Rio. The group consists of Rocket's older brother Goose (Renato de Souza), Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Clipper (Jefechander Suplino). The three rob whatever they can and give back to the community.

It's not long before they capture the excitement of budding robber-to-be Lil Dice (Douglas Silva). Dice gives them the idea of a big score, and so begins the plot to rob a nearby motel and its patrons. The heist turns into a bloodbath, with Dice, a lookout, falsely telling the trio that the cops are coming. It's not long until the cops do show up. The trio splits up, but only one survives.

In the '70s, Dice is now grown up and takes on the name Li'l Zé (now played by da Hora). At the same time Zé seizes control of the favela underworld, Rocket finds a different path. He finds acceptance with a group of hippies and hopelessly loves fellow free-spirit Angélica (Alice Braga). She inspires a lot in him as he finds passion in a different device that can shoot subjects...a camera.

Hispanic Heritage Month Connections

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

The City of God (Cidade de Deus) is a real slum outside of Rio. The film pokes and prods at the irony of its name, as it tells the story of Rocket and Li'l Zé. But it never crosses over into satire or parody. Much the same, while the film is unapologetic about its depiction of violence, it never revels in it. The way of life in the Cidade de Deus is just a matter of fact.

The real Cidade de Deus, like all favelas, is an unfortunate byproduct of urbanization. As more opportunities opened up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, more people sought the promise of city life. But not everyone was able to afford the cost of living. Those that couldn't find a place to live turned to the slums. Instead of trying to combat the problem at its core, the Brazilian government systematically uprooted the slums and placed the inhabitants in makeshift towns, or favelas, far from the city center. Out of sight, out of mind, right? As we see in the film, not exactly.

One of the more chilling aspects of "City of God" is that while crime never leaves the Cidade de Deus, those who do seize control keep getting younger and younger. This may paint a grim picture of life in favelas, but despite all the hardship, there is a close-knit community and a vibrant culture for those who live there.

Why You Should See It

Produced and released in Brazil in 2002, "City of God" quickly captured everyone's attention as it received more international distribution the following year. By 2004, it was Brazil's highest-grossing film and was up for all the major awards. While "City of God" oddly did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the film did land four Oscar nods: Best Director (Meirelles), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bráulio Mantovani), Best Cinematography (César Charlone), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Rezende).

As for the film itself, the influence of Martin Scorsese is undeniable. From the camerawork and the needle drops to the self-aware voiceover and the characters you don't know if you should love or hate. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund wear their "GoodFellas" inspiration on their sleeve. And it works. As Roger Ebert said in his review of the film at the time of its release, the film justly earns it, after all, "["GoodFellas"] began with a narrator who said that for as long as he could remember he wanted to be a gangster. The narrator of this film seems to have had no other choice."

"City of God" is unrelenting and riveting. For those that might have felt "The Many Saints of Newark" was lacking as an organized crime origin story, this is a mob film that delivers.

Did You Know

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

© Miramax / Courtesy Everett Collection

"City of God" is set in a real favela, but the nearby Cidade Alta played the part. Only one cast member at the time had previous acting experience. That was Matheus Nachtergaele, who played Carrot, the rival drug lord to Li'l Zé. For authenticity, and due to the lack of availability of experienced Black actors, amateur actors filled in the rest of the cast. Many had lived in real favelas, and some even came from the real Cidade de Deus.

City of God Poster

City of God


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Matt Lissauer

Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.

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