20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'

How well do you know the high voltage Brazilian gangster flick?

Miramax

You didn't expect this kind of whirling inventiveness from a fledgling director. But there was City of God in 2003, introducing Fernando Meirelles to the film industry and the title favela to the world at large. The film shows the darker side of one of South America's most famous resort cities, Rio de Janeiro. Set in the "City of God," the lawless ghetto where the city's poorest and most dangerous citizens live, Meirelles tells stories of hope, of violence, and of love.

City of God is a great film, but it resonated with viewers because it's a gangster movie. The movie tells the origin of Li'l Zé, a killer with serious self-loathing issues. And Meirelles spins his tale, as well as others, with hyperkinetic editing, handheld cameras, and sun-soaked lighting. The effect is Scorsese-esque and thrilling. But City of God also manages to skirt glorifying the violence. You don't envy these guys.

As beloved as City of God is (currently #21 in the IMDb Top 250), it remains a mysterious star in the film universe. Meirelles followed it up with the underrated Constant Gardener in 2005, but has yet to match its greatness again. City of God stands on its own at this point and is still one of the best gangster films of the new millennium. Let's dig deeper into the movie and discover what was going down behind the scenes: 

1. In 2000, director Fernando Meirelles and his crew hand-picked around 100 kids from the actual Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro and placed them into a makeshift actor's workshop for several months. It focused on simulating authentic street war happenings—shootouts and scuffles—with a heavy focus on improvisation. This is how the cast of non-actors came together and learned how to act in front of a camera.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
Miramax

2. Like most of the non-actors used in the film, Alexandre Rodrigues (Buscapé) and Leandro Firmino (Li'l Zé) really were from the City of God. Firmino only went to the audition to keep a friend company. 

3. The character of Buscapé was based on a composite of Paulo Lins, the author of the book Cidade de Deus, and a childhood friend of his who dreamed of becoming a photographer.

4. Meirelles has said if he knew the dangers of filming the movie in a Rio favela, he wouldn't have done it.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
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5. The Runts portrayed in City of God would grow up to form the now feared Comando Vermelho  or "Red Command," the most notorious gang in Rio. Like in the film, the CV is known to have a death list. 

6. The scene where the gang prays before the war was not scripted. During shooting, a young boy, who was once in a real gang, asked Meirelles if the group was going to pray like they always did before any fight. Meirelles asked him to lead the prayer as they shot the scene.

7. The scene where Buscapé tells Marina (Graziela Moretto) "he never took a hot bath" wasn't scripted. It was actually footage of Rodrigues and Moretto talking off camera. During a pause in shooting, he was simply telling her about his life in the City of God.

8. The film was not actually shot in the Cidade de Deus, as it was too dangerous. It was shot in a neighboring, less dangerous area.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
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9. City of God marks the acting debut of 19-year-old Alice Braga, now one of Brazil's most famous actresses. She had appeared in commercials as a child but hadn't done much since. She credits the film for her current success. 

10. One of the only professional actors on the City of God set was Matheus Nachtergaele (who plays Carrot). Meirelles cast him despite only wanting amateurs. And the director saw things get worse when Nachtergaele became a huge star in Brazil after the success of another movie, A Dog's Will. But the actor promised Mierelles he would disappear into his role. He moved to the real Cidade de Deus for three months before shooting to live with his authentic castmates and prepare.

11. To prepare the child actor who's shot in the foot by Li'l Zé, acting coach Fátima Toledo told him to harness his greatest fear, which turned out to be a toothache. She told him to pretend his toothache moved to his foot. 

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
Miramax

12. The last shot of the movie, where the little boy loses his slipper and comes back to pick it up, was not scripted. The incident happened naturally and Meirelles kept the take because it helped to highlight the boy's presence of mind.

13. City of God was Brazil's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 75th Academy Awards in 2003. But it failed to receive a nomination. The same year, Miramax released the movie in the U.S. which qualified it for other categories the following year. In 2004, City of God was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Adaptated Screenplay). It was the first time a Brazilian film earned more than two Oscar nods.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
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14. In order to increase the reality of the tension between Dadinho and Marreco, acting coach Fátima Toledo told Renato de Souza (Marreco) to bully the much younger Douglas Silva (Dadinho) for 15 days. But the plan nearly backfired. In one scene, Marreco slaps Dadinho, and Silva got so upset he threatened to walk off.

15. Seu Jorge, who plays Knockout Ned, is a samba-soul singer with cult-status in Brazil. One of his songs can be found on the City of God soundtrack and many more can be found in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which the singer also starred in.

16. Here are the characters' names translated: Buscapé - Rocket (the firecracker type), Zé Pequeno - Li'l Zé (Zé is a nickname for José), Dadinho - Little Dice, Cabeleira - Big Hair/Shaggy Hair, Mané Galinha - Chicken Mané (usually means "Womanizer" in Portugese slang, Mané is short for Manuel), Alicate - Pliers, Barbantinho - Little String, Cabeção - Big Head, Filé-com-Fritas - Steak with Fries, Paraíba - Paraíba (the name of a state in the north east of Brazil where the character comes from).

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
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17. In the English-subtitled version of the film, Mané Galinha is called "Knockout Ned." The name was changed to avoid confusion since Mané Galinha means "Chicken Manuel." In the U.S. a chicken is a coward, but, as mentioned above, in Brazil it means "womanizer" and the character also stole chickens. The term "knockout" means "handsome" in American slang.

18. On the American version of the DVD, the guns are all removed from the hands of the group standing on the DVD cover. They are pointing imaginary guns.

19. On the DVD commentary track, Meirelles says the shot in which we see Alicate, Cabeleira, and Marreco through the bumper of a gas truck is a homage to Charlie's Angels (the three boys are all striking different poses with their weapons like in the famous silhouette from the show).

20. (**SPOILER ALERT**) The subjective take in which we see Buscapé's point of view after Li'l Zé is killed by the Runts was shot by Alexandre Rodrigues. Director of Photogrpahy César Charlone insisted on teaching the actor how to handle a camera, just like his character. Meirelles accepted the suggestion.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'
Miramax

[Big h/t to IMDb, Wikipedia, and the City of God DVD]

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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