10 Fascinating Facts About ‘City of God’

Shot on location in Rio's poorest neighborhoods, this gritty drama is as evocative today as it was when it first hit theaters in 2002.
Alexandre Rodrigues in 'City of God' (2002).
Alexandre Rodrigues in 'City of God' (2002). / Miramax

Brazil doesn’t usually garner much international attention for its film industry, but in 2002, City of God defied all expectations and took the world by storm.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the crime film—which screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002—tells the story of life inside a decades-long drug war through the lens of an aspiring photographer named Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues). It’s a violent, complex exploration of living in poverty that was loosely based on a 1997 novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, with human joy tucked into its nooks and crannies as bullets sail by. Acted by amateurs drawing from their real-life experiences, the movie broke records at box offices in its native country and then hit global theaters to great acclaim soon after.

Here are 10 facts about City of God, which isn’t just one of the best Brazilian films of all time—it’s also one of the most memorable movies of the 21st century, period.

They set up a non-profit to train the actors.

The production team, Nós do Cinema, spent several months working with young people from the favelas (a term used in Brazil to describe a “slum or shantytown located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities”). They introduced them to filmmaking, even offering classes on screen acting, and most of the performers who took roles in the movie came from their class. After filming wrapped, Nós do Cinema (“We From the Cinema”) continued its mission, helping community members and City of God stars gain new training opportunities and secure more roles.

There’s a Charlie's Angels spoof in it.

If you thought that the image of the Tender Trio holding their guns aloft in different directions while framed through the back window of a gas truck looked familiar, that’s because it’s an homage to the famous posing of Charlie's Angels. Meirelles confirmed the spoof of the cheesy 1970s action show on the DVD commentary for the film.

The chicken escape wasn’t planned.

Several memorable moments in the film were improvised or accidents that the production team left in the final cut (including the prayer scene and Giant retrieving his shoe). Perhaps the most iconic is the opening itself, where a chicken was supposed to cross the road (sorry) toward camera with a police car taking over prominence in the frame shortly after.

Instead, the chicken bolted, and cinematographer Cesar Charlone went with it. “Let’s say that God is more creative than we are. Because He always surprises you with things you haven’t thought about and unexpectedly are super creative,” he told Retrofuturista in 2020.

A toothache helped one of the Runts act.

You know the scene. It’s undoubtedly the most infamous of the film, one of the most upsettingly violent moments in modern cinema history. When a couple of the young boys in the Runts gang don’t run away fast enough, Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) comes to teach them a lesson. He makes them choose between getting shot in the hand or the foot.

The acting is so visceral and genuine that it’s surreal to think it’s a child at work. But actor Felipe Paulino, who played one of the young boys in the scene, explained that the fear felt very real to him. Acting coach Fátima Toledo claims she guided him to the performance by suggesting he think of a powerful pain, like a toothache, traveling from his mouth down to his foot.

Alice Braga credits a kiss on the beach for her success.

City of God was Braga’s feature film debut, playing the love interest Angelica to photographer Buscapé. The image of them kissing became one of the most enduring from the film, used on posters and promotional materials (and offering a hopeful, softer side to the crime drama).

It also launched Braga’s career. “I think that beach scene, especially the one with the kiss, really helped my career because the frame of that kiss stuck in many people’s minds,” she explained in the documentary City of God —10 Years Later. Following its success, she co-starred with Will Smith in I Am Legend and most recently co-starred in The Suicide Squad.

They accidentally credited Alexandre Rodrigues’s real name in their fake paper.

After Li’l Zé’s death in the film, the resulting camera shot was done by Rodrigues himself, as Charlone had taught him how to operate the camera. This effectively means that the sequence from Buscapé’s point of view was genuinely shot from Buscapé’s point of view.

The resulting photograph that gets printed in the paper doesn’t say Buscapé on it though, or even his real name, Wilson Rodrigues. Instead, it credits “Alexandre Rodrigues,” making the moment even more meta. The character was based on Andre Camara, who photographed a favela drug war in the mid-1980s at the age of 17. He went on to cover World Cups, the Olympics, and the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London in 2005.

Most of the actors are still struggling. 

The bulk of the actors were amateurs who lived in favelas, an artistic choice by the directors and a necessity in order to get filming permission from the leadership inside the favelas. Most of them didn’t gain any money, fame, or security from the film’s success. Film magazine Shadow and Act detailed the fates of the actors when City of God — 10 Years Later was released and noted that light-skinned actors found moderate to huge success while most of the Black actors found none.

The biggest exception is Seu Jorge, who continued getting roles in Brazil and had brief notoriety in the U.S. playing David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Firmino, the opposite of his psychotic villain Li’l Zé, was still living in the favela in a small house with a dozen relatives. One actor was arrested for theft shortly after the film came out, while another has disappeared and may be dead. Despite the critical love, this film was not a ticket out for virtually any of its actors.

There’s a TV spin-off that’s not as intense.

Two other actors who found some success after City of God. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha played young gangsters in the film version and went on to star in the spin-off of City of Men, which showcases life in the favelas with far less gun play, and mostly through dramedy and slice-of-life tales.

It was snubbed for Best Foreign Language Film (but scored four other Oscar nominations).

Fernando Meirelles at the 76th Annual Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon
Director Fernando Meirelles was nominated for Best Director, but his co-director, Kátia Lund, wasn't. / Steve Granitz/GettyImages

In the kind of head-slapping move that makes you wonder about the logic of awards show voters, City of God didn’t get a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It didn’t even make the shortlist, either. Despite the snub, the film earned nominations for and Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. How all that doesn’t add up to being the Best Foreign Language Film of the year is anyone’s guess.

The co-director of City of God didn’t even get a nomination. 

While Meirelles went up against Peter Jackson, Sofia Coppola, Clint Eastwood, and Peter Weir, Lund’s name was completely left off the ballot because the Academy Awards has a bad track record of not recognizing “co-directors.” In the early 2000s, co-directors were very common, though. Meirelles brought Lund in for her insights into the world of the favelas, as well as her contacts and striking ability to pull naturalistic performances from actors.

She responded to the baffling erasure with grace, celebrating the nomination as a victory for Brazilian cinema. In 2004, she told The Guardian, “A year of preparation. Sitting on the set next to Fernando. Going to the edit. I was not there just to hold his hand. It puts me in a very awkward position. I worked on the script from the fourth to the 12th draft. I supervised the crew. I know I was there working with Fernando to construct the vision and style of this film. If I was not directing, what was I doing?”

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