The galvanizing Brazilian movie City of God hits the ground running and never stops. Literally.
In the very first scene, we see a chicken escape the chopping block and run headlong through the streets of the favela (slum), ironically known as the City of God, which is just outside the comfy touristy parts of Rio de Janeiro. In hot pursuit is a gang of wild children and young men, all waving weapons more suitable for waging war than blowing away a chicken. They turn a corner and there, behind the bird, stands our protagonist, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young photographer who grew up in the City of God. Behind him is a cadre of police, guns at the ready.
Then the movie spins on its heels and shoots us back to the 1960s, when Rocket is just a boy who dreams of taking photos. From there, we move into the 1970s and then the 1980s, with the favela becoming ever more dangerous and corrupt.
Working from a 700-page book by historian Paulo Lins, directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund show us how, in only a few decades, a housing project riddled with poverty and petty crime is transformed into a hardcore hell ruled by rival drug-dealing gangs and inhabited by the Runts, a feral band of children who are barely bigger than the weapons they carry.
The filmmakers pile story upon story, but the focus is mainly on Rocket and a vicious drug dealer named Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). The two grew up together, but while Rocket is a pretty decent kid, Li’l Dice, as Ze was known as a boy, is a natural-born psychokiller. He makes the resident hoods—a motley threesome known as the Tender Trio, who specialize in robbing armored cars—look as tame as camp counselors.
By the 1970s, the Tender Trio is history. Li’l Ze and his laid-back best buddy, Benny (Philippe Haagensen)—the “coolest hood in the favela”—are in charge. Their only competition comes from Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), whose business they usurped. There’s also Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a former military sharpshooter who now works at a menial job. He becomes embroiled in the gang violence when Li’l Ze attacks his family.
In many ways, City of God is the Gangs of New York Martin Scorsese might have made if he’d been able to pull off the project in the late 1970s, as he’d originally wanted. City of God has the same intoxicating charge, the mix of art and savagery that Scorsese put into Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But Meirelles adds an overlay of social realism—GoodFellas meets Pixote.
Realizing that he had the technique, but not the background, to tell this story, Meirelles hired Lund as codirector because she had made documentary films in the favela and knew the territory. Together, they culled some 200 men and boys from the area and conducted an eight-month-long acting workshop that also functioned as an unannounced casting session. As a result, almost all the roles are played by nonprofessionals.
City of God is one of those rare instances in which substance matches flash. Meirelles and Lund use every cinematic trick—fast-forward, slow motion, split screen, freeze-frame, you name it—yet they never lose control of their characters or story. In one bravura sequence, they trace the devolution of a single apartment from modest family dwelling to a drug dealer’s trashed-out crash pad, where you’re as likely to get shot as to get your fix.
City of God seethes and preens, disturbs and dazzles, horrifies and amuses. With the sort of adrenaline-rush movie-making that Hollywood has mostly consigned to explosions and car chases instead of plot and character, this extraordinary movie hits you right in the gut and just keeps punching.
Eleanor Ringel Gillespie is film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.