Welcome to the inappropriately
named City of God, a dust-encrusted slum that taints Rio de Janeiro's
postcard-worthy beaches and hotels, packed with roving gangs of
amoral youth that rob, rape, and shoot with shocking indifference
to human life. Stewing in this impoverished pot of ramshackle
Brazilian housing projects, many of these trigger-happy marauders
are too young to shave. But they wield an arsenal of illicit street
weapons that would make Travis Bickle stand up and take notice.
Indeed, Cidade de Deus is less a city of God than an open sewage
valve from the gates of Hell.
City of God opens with an explosion
of cutting knives, stomping feet, and cooking meat as a street
barbecue gets underway. The camera jostles about, like a freight
train struggling to remain on track, before zeroing in on a fleeing
chicken that doesn't want to end up on a plate. Like a pack of
hungry wolves, several would-be diners pursue the terrified, clucking
bird as it navigates down stairwells, through alleys, and across
heavy road traffic. The abrupt, unexpected chase is a telling
hint at to how director Fernandes Meirelles will stage the rest
of his film - with furious momentum at a breathless pace. Like
Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese,
Meirelles explores the world's darkest corners with a surprisingly
chest-pounding zest for life.
After City of God's opening scene
slaps viewers in the face, the film rewinds to the 1960s and introduces
us to its prepubescent, fresh-faced leads. There's Rocket (Alexandre
Rodrigues), who yearns to be a photographer, Lil' Dice (Leandro
Firmino da Hora), a cherubic psychopath whose horse-sized pearly
whites show up best during the enthusiastic shooting of rivals,
and Benny, a mellow child-hippie with coke-bottle glasses and
a Woodstock afro.
We watch these children become
corrupted from the time they leave the womb, as the trio observes
older siblings robbing gasoline trucks and looting hotels. Any
possibility of redemption through love is quickly stomped out
for these crooked role models, as they woo jaded women who seem
to know where everything will ultimately end up. "Hoods don't
talk," says one seen-it-all girl, "they smooth talk.
And they don't stop. They just take a break."
Eventually, death takes its toll
on the City of God's older generation of gangsters, leaving the
turf to younger upstarts. The most vicious kids, like Lil' Dice,
will rule the roost and inherit the slum's illicit drug trades.
During one hyperkinetic montage, the entire hierarchy of drug
cartel employment is outlined like a vocational training video.
We're shown assembly lines of Brazilian families cheerfully manufacturing
cocaine, dividing their wares into packets and bundles. Such dope
then falls into the hands of delivery boys, while 'lookouts' alert
the cartels to the presence of authorities by retrieving flying
kites from the sky as a type of reverse smoke signal. Upward mobility
might culminate in a position as 'soldier,' before one ultimately
attains 'manager' status. All this is contingent upon the cartel
employee surviving his first few days at this unholy trade.
City of God is meticulous in
its descriptions of well-intended individuals caught up in these
ferocious waves of street crime. One of many story threads follows
Knockout Ned, a bus driving ladies' man, whose thirst for revenge
leads him off the path of righteousness and into the cartel scene.
Initially, Ned explains that he's a principled gangster who insists
on "no killing of innocents." Gradually, however, he
learns that such rules seldom survive on the unpredictable playing
field of criminal life.
Meanwhile, Lil' Dice rules the
City of God with a cruel iron fist. In the most horrific of the
movie's many wrenching scenes, he demands that a gang wannabe
shoot one of two street kids from a younger upstart gang. As the
assassin debates which target to fire on, the pair of little ones
look on in horror, whimpering all the while.
Despite the film's despairing
vibe, Meirelles injects some hope in the form of Rocket. Although
he laments living "a sucker's life" and feels as though
honesty doesn't pay, this fundamentally decent kid marches to
a more compassionate drummer. In a hilarious series of scenes
showing Rocket's many failed stabs at gangster life, Meirelles
makes clear that his protagonist doesn't have the stomach to kill.
After entering a café, Rocket can't bring himself to pull
a gun on the cute waitress (he chats her up for a phone number,
instead). Attempting to rob a bus, he quickly reconsiders, reasoning,
"I couldn't do it. The driver was too cool a guy." As
his peers dodge bullets and sell to addicts, Rocket stands a chance
at escaping from his city's violent streets.
According to press information,
Meirelles chose his cast members not from the ranks of professional
actors, but from the actual streets of Cidade de Deus. If so,
these non-thespians pull off miraculous performances that smack
of natural, spontaneous realism. Firmino da Hora is especially
convincing as that hotheaded Lil' Dice, flashing a dazzling, Donny
Osmond-caliber grin even as he's brandishing handguns and whacking
Meanwhile, the director keeps
things flowing at a fevered pace, while tossing in chunks of homage
to the world's greatest directors. A bird's eye massacre echoes
the finale of Taxi Driver, a 360-degree camera move borrows from
The Matrix, and the messy, unpredictable violence is cut from
the same cloth as Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Its split-screen
effects hint at early 1970s cop films, and a montage of prayer
and carnage pays tribute to the climax of The Godfather. Rather
than rip off these past influences, however, Meirelles is tipping
his hat to the masters while acknowledging that he's done his
homework. This guy knows what he's doing, and his flamboyant array
of camera tricks is a visual knockout that matches the volatile
nature of his story.
In spite of the undeniable technical
genius employed by Meirelles, City of God's mayhem and the distressingly
tiny tots that perpetrate such bloodshed demand that one ask the
question, why subject oneself to a film this unflinchingly brutal?
One reason might be to acknowledge the depths to which a society
can descend without a moral beacon to guide it through human history.
Like Schindler's List, GoodFellas, The Pianist, and Casualties
of War, Meirelles' window into Brazil's dark underbelly reminds
us of the anarchy that surfaces when the price of human life hits