City of God is a virtuoso action flick … about Brazilian poverty.
The turbulent Brazilian teenage gangster melodrama City of God (Miramax) takes its title from a legendary slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, a suburb that (according to the movie) was designed in the '60s to keep the poor as far as possible from Rio's glamorous beaches and resorts. The film's young narrator, "Rocket" (Alexandre Rodrigues), speaks the name of the place ("Cidade de Deus" in Portuguese) with mischievous regularity: As the corpses—many of them children—pile up, it comes to sound like a nihilist mantra.
Age-wise, some of the killers are in the mid-single digits, but City of God isn't played as a tragedy of lost youth, like Los Olvidados (1950) or Pixote (1981). It's not really about the absence of God, either, like the absurdist Medellín murderfest Our Lady of the Assassins (2000). As directed by Fernando Meirelles, it's in the tradition of kicky-ironic action pictures—a foreign art movie for fans of Quentin Tarantino and New Jack City (1991). And it's sensationally well-made: skittery and kinetic, packed with mayhem, yet framed (and narrated) with witty detachment, so that the carnage never seems garish. The film is far from a work of art, but it marks the emergence of a great new action superchef.
It's fitting that it opens with a chicken run—with a bravura credit sequence in which a bird watches another bird beheaded, scalded, and plucked, then decides to make a dash for it. The camera hugs the creature's tail feathers as it flutters down the street, with the butcher—a feral teenage drug overlord named Lil' Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora)—and his gang in feverish pursuit. The bird runs smack into the narrator, Rocket, who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a standoff between Lil' Ze's posse and the police (and about 30 guns). As he contemplates his next—and potentially last—move, the camera makes a 360-degree revolution around him, and Rocket metamorphoses into his adolescent self, back in the '60s, in the first years of Cidade de Deus. The showy transition is emblematic of both the picture's hot-dog style and its breathless fluidity. It's rife with flashbacks, digressions, journalistic interpolations—the seams are all on show. But its headlong momentum never breaks.
The script, by Bráulio Mantovani (from a book by Paulo Lins), begins with the story of the "Tender Trio" of naive, high-spirited rogues, among them Rocket's big brother Goose. When they rob a gas truck, they throw handfuls of money in the air for the little children; and when the police pull up, they high-tail it, tug off their shirts, and mix in with the kids playing soccer. The early scenes take place on brown earth that's still being turned, and the lighting bronzes and romanticizes these rangy, libidinous bandidos. They're brought down not by cops but by a pint-sized psychopath known as "Lil' Dice," who leads them into a motel robbery that ends in a massacre. By the time Lil' Dice evolves into Lil' Ze (the chicken butcher from the first scene), he has decided to become the crime boss of the City of God, to wipe out rival drug dealers and anyone else in his way—including any moppets (or "runts") whose robberies or muggings would bring more police into the slum.
Rocket, who dreams of escaping from the City of God and becoming a photographer, is nominally the film's protagonist, and he's around to report on the big events and to fill the audience in on who's who: He narrates in the breezy, info-laden style of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). But he's peripheral—a blandly good-natured observer who can't seem to get laid, who flirts with crime but ends up liking his victims too much ever to rob them.
The movie is really the story of Lil' Ze's rampaging appetite, and Firmino da Hora holds the screen with his huge front teeth and wolfish grin: He's poised to swallow the world. The only one who tempers him is his curly-haired partner, Benny (Philippe Haagensen), who often protests that it's better not to shoot people when you can, for example, talk to them. But Benny soon loses interest in the drug business. He falls in love with the girl of Rocket's dreams (Alice Braga, Sonia's lithe and gorgeous niece) and becomes a "playboy": He buys flashy shirts, smooches his hotty, smokes a lot of dope, and dreams aloud of a groovy life on a farm far away from the City of God. He throws himself a huge going-away bash, a love-in that inevitably goes bad when no girls will dance with ugly Lil' Ze. After that night, the splatter really hits the fan.
City of God doesn't offer a character of comparable stature to Lil' Ze until its final third, when the drug lord picks a pointless fight with a handsome straight arrow—a veritable boy scout—known as Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Picking a fight in this context doesn't mean throwing a few punches, but firing several hundred rounds into a house and killing a large percentage of a family. As a rival gang leader in spite of himself, Ned first orders his henchmen (and henchboys) never to gun down innocents, then makes an exception in the name of self-defense. Then, as the narrator points out, the exception becomes the rule. The movie builds to a full-scale war in the City of God, understandably not covered by wary Rio photojournalists—an unprecedented opportunity for our would-be photographer protagonist, provided he can get the shot without getting shot.
Apart from the climax of Benny's farewell party, when Meirelles goes for a hallucinatory, stroboscopic effect and ends up muddying the action, there isn't a sequence in City of God that isn't the work of a virtuoso, and the director gives Lil' Ze an end that is worthy of him—mythic but ignominious, without a trace of sanctifying Scarface grandiosity. But there aren't many scenes that are more than the work of a virtuoso. The movie might have been momentous—a gangster masterpiece—if Rocket had learned from his new vocation, if he'd been able to see something through the lens of his camera that he couldn't as a mere bystander. But he doesn't seem to think about the meaning of the violence that he shoots—which suggests that the director didn't think about it much, either. Covering the carnage is just a means for Rocket to get out of the City of God—and a means for Meirelles to get a big U.S. release from Miramax (which gave us Pulp Fiction), an Oscar nomination, and a calling card in Hollywood.
The violence in City of God isn't glorified, but it doesn't get under your skin and haunt you, either—which is odd when you consider the movie's sociopolitical trappings (it's based on a true story) and how many kids end up eating bullets on-screen. The only moment that rips the pulp fabric is when Lil' Ze hands a gun to a boy known as Steak-and-Fries (Darlan Cunha) and commands him to choose which of two delinquent "runts" to shoot—one of whom looks 6 years old and suddenly begins to sob like the small child that he is. That infantile keening cuts through the camera's wry objectivity. It's the only time we ever think, "Don't shoot" instead of, "Duck!"