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Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003

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Robert J. Lewis
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from City of God
from City of God
from City of God
from City of God
from City of God

meirelles & lund's

reviewed by



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 rivals.

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 rock bottom.

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