Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles tells the true stories in “City of God” with the urgency of a man possessed. The film has a mad energy about it, the sort of sweaty fervor we associate with the legendary parties of Rio de Janeiro, except these people are not celebrating life. They’re desperately trying to maintain a grip on it.
Set in the gang-controlled slums of Rio, “City of God” focuses on a handful of young people — children, really — whose destinies as hoodlums seem predetermined. In the beginning, there is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who finds himself being advanced upon by a gang he has apparently angered. The camera swirls around him and we are taken back in time, to the 1960s (the “present” was the 1970s), when he was a kid playing soccer. Rocket, narrating the film, tells us we have to see how it all started, to see the early lives of the characters to understand how they came to be where they are now.
The Tender Trio, as they called themselves, consisted of Rocket’s brother Goose and his friends Shaggy and Clipper. They are ill-fated. Rocket himself tries to avoid the life of crime, but the life of crime is unavoidable.
We encounter Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), whom we will later see — the film is often told out-of-sequence, frequently doubling back on itself — laughing with malicious glee as he perpetrates a horrific act. This is a chilling moment, but it pales in comparison to a later scene where Li’l Dice, a little older and now called Li’l Ze (now played by Leandro Firmino da Hora), is the boss of the slum and he forces one of his underlings to choose which of two very young boys to kill.
We also meet Ze’s friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), who is too nice to be a hood and who balances out Ze’s coldly evil personality. We see how Rocket, who wants to be a photographer, clings to the hope that he can avoid his brother’s fate, that he can make it out of the City of God alive.
The cinematography and editing of the film are exciting, giving it a style that is distinct and visceral, perfectly complementing the operatic stories. Meirelles follows the example of “Pulp Fiction,” depicting a lot of violence in several multi-layered stories without actually showing a lot of it on the screen. When it’s over, you’ll have the impression that the film was far more gruesome than it actually was. In this world, life is inherently violent, even in the rare moments when the city is calm.
Many of the actors are actual kids from the slums depicted, with little or no previous acting experience. Meirelles and his co-director, Katia Lund, felt it necessary for authenticity’s sake to find young people whose souls were mired in the problems being examined, and it pays off wonderfully. Though “City of God” is occasionally difficult to watch, it is even more difficult to look away from its vivid characters, gripping stories and stimulating visuals.
B+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; in Portuguese with English subtitles; )