Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 10, 2003
City of God\r\nStarring Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Firmino da Hora. Directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles. Written by Bráulio Mantovani, based on Paulo Lins’ novel. Rated R.\r\n
Dead End Kids

Rio de Janeiro looks a lot\r\nlike hell in the stylish\r\ncrime epic City of God.


The City of God is the name of a favela, or a slum, outside of Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government built this housing community in the 1960s so the city’s homeless people would be kept away from the wealthy citizens and foreign tourists who treasured the image of the city as a haven of pristine, sun-kissed beaches. Unfortunately, while the city’s poorest residents got new homes, nothing else was done to alleviate their crushing poverty, as the City of God was built without schools, hospitals, or nurseries. With honest jobs paying pitifully low wages, Rio was a place of zero social mobility — if you were born poor, you’d die that way, and so would your kids. Except for playing soccer professionally, the only escape from the favelas was through the sale or use of drugs, and the gangs and crime surrounding the drug trade turned the City of God into a self-cleaning oven.

This is the world of the Portuguese-language crime epic City of God, which is not only the first truly excellent movie of 2003, but also something entirely new in Brazilian cinema. At first blush, this movie seems squarely in the vein of that country’s tradition of hardy, socially conscious, neorealist films ranging from Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Barren Lives to Walter Salles’ Central Station and Behind the Sun. However, its visual and narrative style owe much more to Quentin Tarantino than to the cinema novo movement. That may sound derivative, but the result is a wholly original and powerful work that is the best gangster film from any country in the last 10 years.

The movie’s based on the memoirs of Paulo Lins, a journalist who grew up in the City of God, and it takes its episodic structure from the book. The author’s stand-in is a kid nicknamed Buscapé, or “Rocket” (Alexandre Rodrigues), who narrates the events from his childhood in the 1960s through his adult years in the 1980s. His boyhood acquaintance Dadinho, or “Li’l Dice” (Douglas Silva), runs with a trio of dead-headed small-time crooks, including Rocket’s older brother. Already a murderous psychopath at age 12, Li’l Dice outgrows his elders, turning their hold-up job at a brothel into a massacre. He then wipes out his former mentors and grows into Zé Pequeno, or “Li’l Zé” (Leandro Firmino da Hora, made up to look like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction), who runs the drug trade in most of the City of God and is preparing to eliminate his one remaining rival.

The movie announces each individual story through chapter headings, and the overall narrative constantly doubles back on itself, with a voice-over narrator informing us that peripheral characters will get their own storylines later on. A huge gallery of colorful characters with names like Carrot, Clipper, Tuba, and Steak-n-Fries makes this an epic vision of a city’s underworld, more expansive than Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and in less time (130 minutes).

More impressive than the film’s scope, however, is the skill that director Fernando Meirelles brings to this story. He’s particularly good with the movie’s numerous killings — not since L.A. Confidential has there been a film with so many memorably staged murders. Among the highlights: A crime lord finds his wife in bed with another man and calmly beats her to death with a shovel; a montage of Li’l Zé’s rise to power, with a series of overhead shots of rival drug lords backed up against walls or dragged from their beds and riddled with bullets; a view from inside a police car as, in the corner of the frame, a crooked lieutenant casually guns down an informant who has outlived his usefulness. Most haunting of all is a brutal, protracted scene in which a 12-year-old is initiated into a gang by being made to execute two pickpockets, one of them no older than four years old, both sobbing like the babies that they practically are.

These killings are done without a semblance of any code of honor, as many of the victims are shot in the back by their friends. When an honest, hardworking bus driver named Mané Galinha, or “Knockout Ned” (Seu Jorge), gets dragged into the gang war by the rape of his girlfriend and the murders of his family members, the result is a sordid killing spree rather than a noble crusade for revenge, by the end of which everyone has forgotten why Ned got involved in the first place. Rocket negotiates this world and almost gets sucked into the crime at several points, but the movie doesn’t preach and presents him as a survivor rather than a moral exemplar.

If all this sounds bleak, it certainly doesn’t play that way. That’s because Meirelles directs with so much pizzazz and flair that he establishes himself as a promising new voice in world cinema. With its light touch and sense of humor counteracting its darkness, City of God is a rare thing, managing to rail against poverty and social injustice while being entertaining as hell.

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