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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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