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CITY OF GOD (Cidade de Deus)(director: Kátia Lund/Fernando Meirelles; screenwriters: from the novel by Paulo Lins/Bráulio Mantovani; cinematographer: César Charlone; editor: Daniel Rezende; music: Ed Cortês/Antonio Pinto; cast: Matheus Nachtergaele (Carrot), Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned), Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket), Leandro Firmino da Hora (Li’l Zé), Douglas Silva (Lil Dice), Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino), Goose (Renato de Souza), Philippe Haagensen (Bene), Alice Braga (Angelica), Darlan Cunha (Steak-and-Fries); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro/Maurício Andrade Ramos; Miramax Films; 2002-Brazil/Germany/France, in Portuguese with English subtitles)
“I came out of the theater feeling lucky to be alive.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ sensation causing film, his debut after a stint as Brazil’s most successful director of commercials, is based on a true story. It plays like a Latin dance of excessive violence as it slickly makes its way through one of the world’s most notorious slums (favelas) in Rio de Janeiro, misnamed the City of God (Cidade de Deus)–the City of Hell would have been a more suitable name. It’s a slum created in the 1960s by the government to keep away the poor and the homeless from the city’s famed tourist beach, as it was some 15 miles away and well out of sight from paradise. It’s a place so fearsome that police rarely go there and the film crew for safety reasons shot there only with the permission of the local drug lord. Meirelles cast nearly 200 nonprofessional actors from the neighborhood (trained on the site), and this, coupled with the stunning photography of César Charlone, gives the film a brutal validity. It had the pulse of authenticity, but it was much too hyper-kinetic and dopey to leave an impact as the body count piled up and it soon didn’t seem to matter who was dying and that many of them were children as young as 9. I came out of the theater feeling lucky to be alive.

City of God is seen through the eyes of the film’s narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an 11-year-old in the 1960s stuck in the slum city but yearning at first to be a gangster and then to escape as a photographer. His gangster experience fails only because his potential vics are too cool to rob. His love experience also goes unsatisfied, as he has a crush on a sultry sexually active girl named Angelica (Alice Braga, Sonia’s niece), but can’t score because of his social awkwardness.

The film goes around in a circle starting at the film’s end in the mid-1980s. Through the use of a rapid-cutting style, it flashes back in time to the 1960s and takes us through the 1970s (it uses a split-screen for many of the shots here) and then loops back on itself to the point where it began. The message is that this violence cannot be altered because of the slum’s poverty, poor education, dysfunctional families, lack of institutions to deal with the social problems, police corruption, and government indifference.

Rocket tells us about how in the 1960s the roughest gang in the slum was called the Tender Trio: Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino) and Goose (Renato de Souza). His older brother was Goose, but he was too scared to follow his gang as they robbed and intimidated others with their guns. The gang breaks up after they carry out a bloody armed robbery of a motel/brothel. In the 1970s, the action picks up as it focuses on a bone-chilling psychopath formerly known as Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) but who takes the name Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). He emerges as the slum’s drug lord by killing off his competition. We later learn that his first murder was at the brothel, when he was the grinning 11-year-old assigned to be the gang’s lookout but couldn’t resist using the gun the gang gave him to go on a killing spree. Li’l Ze is always trigger-happy, and is about as ugly a human being as is Saddam Hussein. Li’l Ze is held somewhat in check by his closest amigo, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), whom one gang leader describes as the coolest hood in the ghetto. But Bené fancies himself more as a playboy than a gangbanger, and yearns to leave the gang and become a hippie. Bené acts on that desire when he falls in love with Rocket’s dream girl Angelica. Meanwhile Rocket has acquired a camera and starts to hang out at a newspaper office. When Bené is accidentally murdered at his farewell party and Li’l Ze rapes the girlfriend of the peace loving Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), the violence builds until the climactic shootout. Reluctantly Ned becomes a gangster and allies himself with Carrot (Nachtergaele), another drug lord, in order to take down Li’l Ze’ gang. By the early 1980s gang warfare rules the slum. Ned is killed in the shoot-out, Carrot is arrested, but Li’l Ze is freed by the corrupt police. The film ends as Li’l Ze’s shot by an upcoming gang of children, as the message is that violence begets violence and that it will continue with the next generation in a never-ending cycle. But there’s hope, as for every hopeless case like Li’l Ze there’s also one who escapes like Rocket. He took pictures of the gang proudly posing with their weapons and of the gang fight. Since those pictures hit the front page, he becomes a professional photographer because he had the nerve to take advantage of the opportunity of having access to no-man’s land.

The dazzling display of choreographed violence and the slight story of a punk’s rise to be top gangster is much like Al Pacino’s Scarface. It reminded me of a multitude of other recent American Pulp Fiction-like films, and also Sam Peckinpah’s Western ode to gore The Wild Bunch. A film that can also be appreciated on purely cinematic terms. There’s hardly anything fresh about the story, but the pace is quicker than most other action films and the techniques are flawlessly executed. Its camera use of an overexposed glow beautifully acts to numb the violence. The violence is not glorified or is it even that bloody considering all the carnage, as much as violence is just made the subject matter of the film. The handheld camera is seemingly always in motion, as the film lets loose its explosive forces from the memorable opening shot where a blade is being sharpened, a drum beaten, and a chicken freed from its leg-tether is running for its life through the market place of the slum. That introduces us to the frenetic roller-coaster ride we will be taken on and to Meirelles’ bravura style of film-making. Director Meirelles was assisted by Kaita Lund, a filmmaker who had previously shot in the Rio slums. It’s also tightly scripted by Bráulio Mantovani from the fact-based novel by Paulo Lins (he lived in the City of God housing project for 30 years). The film is certainly impressive as far as the realism and the energy the nonprofessional actors provided and in the stylistic way Meirelles tells his narrative, but it had a detachment and coldness to it that never reached my heart and left me unconnected with any of the participants. That uncaring attitude about the violence is apparent in Rocket, the film’s storyteller, who doesn’t think about the violence he sees except as a way out for him as a photographer. There’s just something wrong about that attitude as it probably reflects how little the director cared about all that violence, other than making a very entertaining film and waiting for Hollywood to come knocking on his door.

REVIEWED ON 3/26/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”