city of god is the trainspotting of Latin American crime films.That is, it's constructed out of a series of interlocking stories about characters involved, centrally or peripherally, in the late-70s drug gang wars that ripped through Rio de Janeiro's "City of God," the ironic name for one of the town's worst slums.
Coming off last year's festival circuit, Roger Ebert jumped the gun and put City Of God on his 2002 top-10 list. I suspect he was unduly impressed by the film's depiction of squalor, as First World critics often are. No one ever gets terribly exercised about Third World films that show life among the comfortable bourgeoisie. It's a kind of reverse condescension that only finds "real" life in the midst of horrifying poverty, forgetting that everyone's life is real.
City Of God does have a kind of relentless, harrowing energy. The story ricochets from the narrator Rocket's recounting of his own adolescent life, his unrequited love and his desire to become a photographer, to story after story about the world around the hero: how the gangster wannabe Li'l Dice became the sociopathic crime lord Li'l Ze (Leandro Fermino da Hora) and how his boyhood friend Bene (Philippe Haagensen) became the "best-loved" gangster in the City of God.
It's an interesting instance of style and performance trumping genre familiarity, an act of directorial sleight of hand that keeps the viewer from realizing how the principal story, Li'l Ze's rise and ultimate fall, slides into the well-worn grooves of the gangster tragedy.
Li'l Ze's just another Little Caesar or Scarface, with the odd twist that he never rises out of his environment, which is usually the point of the gangster's ambition. He's apparently got money and power, enough of the former to finance a war and enough of the latter to draw soldiers to follow him, but he's still striding the narrow, garbage-strewn alleys of his home neighbourhood.
He never seems to be more than a local drug dealer, and we've seen enough strutting, petty hoods of every nationality and ethnicity in our own movies to know the exact limitations of the type.
Fernando Meirelles and his screenwriter, Bráulio Montavani, are working from a series of true stories. During the end credits they run a piece of historical videotape that is recreated within the film, so you have to wonder whether they relied more on research than imagination. Not that there's anything to complain about in the brute intensity of da Hora's performance as Li'l Ze.
Highly watchable, particularly at the end of a month when the distributors have treated the multiplexes as places to dump unprocessed cinematic email@example.com
CITY OF GOD directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, written by Bráulio Mantovani from the novel by Paulo Lins, produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos, with Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Fermino da Hora, Alice Braga and Philippe Haagensen. 130 minutes. A Globo Filmes/Studio Canal production. A Miramax release through Alliance Atlantis. Opens Friday (January 31). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 71. Rating: NNN