With irresistible technique, the ring of truth, and sheer force of will, Brazil's City of God announces itself to America as the picture to beat in 2003. Adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from Paulo Lins's meticulously researched 700-page true-crime novel, this Brazilian Goodfellas is the next big thing for crime genre buffs.
Telling a story of time, place, and social force as much as of individual characters, City of God takes its audience on an adrenalized tour of the drug-plagued Cidade de Deus housing project in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Our entry into this intense and frequently terrifying world is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose journey from adolescence to young manhood is marked by the slim hope of something better (a legitimate career as a photographer) overshadowed by the insistence of the apocalyptic drug trade. The City of God is a war zone, with armies of nine to fourteen-year-olds eagerly packing heat. Rocket's black-hearted foil, Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), belies his teen age with a deadly efficiency and impunity most adult crime lords would envy.
City of God was co-directed by prime mover Fernando Meirelles (from the world of TV commercials) and documentary filmmaker Kátia Lund, who collaborated with Meirelles on putting the mostly non-professional cast through eight months of workshop paces. This process proves invaluable, countering the kinetic visuals with preternaturally grounded, credible performances which--moment to moment--comment on an underworld frighteningly lacking in paternalism and good will. These children are captivated, literally and figuratively, by a life of crime and threatened daily with the prospect of untimely death. Love is the wild card which in platonic loyalty bonds the young men to criminal commitment, in passionate ardor tugs them away from it, or--by love's cruel retreat--permanently depresses them into the mire.
Like Goodfellas, City of God follows a boy on a Faustian journey to manhood, through the awestruck first tastes of criminal glory and mortal reversals to mature desperation. Employing a seemingly limitless camera and omniscient command of time via editing, freeze frame, and accelerated and decelerated photography, Meirelles's intoxicating dynamism is, if anything, even more restless than Scorsese's, careening full-tilt through a perverse, gory, surreally colorful Brazilian ghetto pinball machine. The result takes away both breath and--for two gripping hours--any remaining sense of safety where ambition outstrips a human need for others.