Blame It On Rio
Scorsese, Schmorsese--City of God is the Bloody Historical Gang Epic to See
First, there's a flash of a knife. As the blade slashes across the black screen again and again, the background morphs into a whetstone. A few quick and chaotic cuts later and the knife is slicing into a freshly killed chicken as samba music plays in the background--there's a party going on in a cramped courtyard in a favela, one of Brazil's infamous ghettos. Another fowl bound for the bill of fare legs it over the mottled concrete, the viewer scurrying along via a wildly careening chicken cam. The partygoers promptly whip out pistols and give chase. Their pursuit leads the posse down winding alleys, into a wider street, and smack into a squad of police, hands on holsters. But the chicken chasers don't run; they reach for bigger guns. Caught in the imminent cross fire between the thugs and the cops are the chicken and a young Afro-Brazilian man armed only with a camera. Welcome to City of God.
All of the above action takes place in what seems like less time than it takes to read about it, by which point director Fernando Meirelles has his hooks in you. But City of God is no mere flashy shoot-'em-up. Distilled from Paulo Lins' sprawling 700-plus-page fact-based 1997 novel of the same name, the film unfolds into a panoramic triptych detailing three decades of hard and dangerous life in the notorious Rio de Janeiro favela that provided the title. City of God is, in fact, one of the most complex and compelling accounts of dead-end street culture to ever hit the big screen, and veteran commercial director Meirelles inaugurates his feature-film career with an epic worthy of mention in the same breath as The Harder They Come, Goodfellas, Boyz N the Hood, or Pulp Fiction, all of which this remarkable film brings to mind at some point.
As the young man with the camera, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), stares down a bullet-riddled fate, the film executes the first of what must be a dozen narrative jukes and zooms back to the 1960s, when Rocket was a child and the City of God was the government's latest solution to housing Rio's poor. Though a golden glow suffuses these sequences, Meirelles undercuts any nostalgia by artfully limning the perennial favela realities: brutal poverty, physical and social isolation, rampant violence, and cops as vicious and lawless as any criminal. Too smart and kindhearted to be a hood, Rocket (whose narration binds the sprawling story lines together) watches his brother and neighborhood pals occupy themselves with increasingly daring and violent robberies. Their rebellion without a cause soon goes awry.
One pint-sized wannabe gangster outwits and outlasts his less ruthless peers, transforming himself into Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) in the film's second section, set in the '70s. As Rocket discovers puppy love and an interest in photography while hanging with middle-class "groovies" on Rio's paradisiacal beaches, Li'l Zé and his best friend, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), consolidate power in the favela's drug trade. But the easygoing Benny goes "groovy," buying Hang 10 shirts with his drug money and buying into the film's ultimately ironic period mantra of "peace and love." Meanwhile, the dour Zé becomes only more power-mad and sadistic; a scene in which he and his enforcers crack down on some prepubescent toughs is almost unwatchable. As in the preceding '60s section, Meirelles, co-director Katiá Lund, and screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani build this segment of the story to a dramatic climax while skillfully setting up the section to come.
At the dawn of the '80s, Li'l Zé finally meets his match in Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), an upstanding regular guy, who, despite all his power and wealth, Zé envies. Zé destroys Ned's life, and Ned grudgingly allies himself with Zé's drug-trade rival, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), to exact revenge. But simple eye-for-an-eye devolves into an endless gang war, and Ned ultimately loses the only thing Zé left untouched--his morals. Meanwhile, budding photographer Rocket snaps a picture of Zé that might provide his ticket out of the favela, provided Zé lets him live that long.
Even this relatively lengthy synopsis barely covers half of what goes on in City of God, which amasses a boggling body of characters, stories, and sociological detail in just over two hours. The film even manages to find a spare moment to humanize Li'l Zé; although he wields ultimate power in the City of God, at root he too is just another poor kid cut off from what he wants and ill-equipped to handle that fact. It is also worth noting that Meirelles' outsized cast--all of whom perform well, some brilliantly--is made up almost exclusively of first-time actors straight from the streets of the favelas themselves.
Then there is the film's thoroughgoing visual dazzle, which persists through every scene despite the gritty settings. City of God resembles a Southern Hemisphere take on the Cool Britannia school (see Boyle, Danny; Glazer, Jonathan; Ritchie, Guy), but without the tendency toward glibness. From an idyllic childhood swim in a flooded forest to a shootout beneath a disco strobe light, Meirelles conjures up sequence after sequence that lingers in the mind's eye long after the lights come up.
Perhaps most impressively, Meirelles and company somehow manage to have their cake and eat it, too: The film plays as both a well-meaning, indie-ish chronicle of the downtrodden and as a stylish, hyperviolent crime film. It does so by never blinking or flinching. It never sentimentalizes, it never lectures, never offers up a tidy moral judgment, and never dresses up the naked truth that, in the end, there are few happy endings for anyone in the City of God.