A two-decade chronicle of the growth of drug trade and gang warfare that grip the slums of Rio de Janeiro, “City of God” delivers a bruising, visceral experience of the vicious spiral of violence that draws kids into a life of crime, brutality and murder as the only avenue open to them. Director Fernando Meirelles’ background in commercials is evident in the drama’s highly developed visual aesthetic, giving it a slickness that’s almost disconcerting and to some degree glamorizes the dirt-poor favela setting. But the impressive filmmaking craftsmanship and sharp storytelling skills make this two-hour-plus epic fly by and could push it beyond arthouse ghettos to find broader urban acceptance. Pre-sold worldwide, the Brazilian pic was acquired by Miramax for the U.S., U.K. and much of Latin America.
Adapting the novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the Cidade de Deus favela and based the story on actual events and characters, screenwriter Braulio Mantovani has condensed the mammoth 600-page tome into key chapters, titles of which appear onscreen, and split the action into three specific periods: the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early ’80s.
Despite comparable use of gangland kids stepping before cameras for the first time, Meirelles’ film (co-directed by Katia Lund) has far less in common with fellow Brazilian Hector Babenco’s crime saga “Pixote” than with “Goodfellas” thanks to factors such as its use of music and voiceover, distinct feel for each period and frequent narrative digressions and backtracking.
However, “City” is no cynical, hipster account of criminal bravado, instead spinning its bruising tale around a tenderhearted center in aspiring photographer Buscape (Alexandre Rodrigues). Clearly representing author Lins, Buscape exists in the thick of the action but is the one significant figure to maintain some purity, providing the sprawling, multi-character story with a unifying voice.
Bracing opening places Buscape face to face with the gang led by Ze Pequeno or Little Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) as the group chases a runaway chicken intended for supper before they take on members of a rival band. Action then rewinds to the ’60s, when the city was a shantytown of low-cost housing without electricity, paved streets or transport. The 11-year-old Buscape recounts the rule of the so-called Tender Trio. These adolescent amateur robbers were looked upon as the toughest hoods imaginable but were angels compared with the more ruthless criminal corps that would later evolve, to be led by then pre-teen Ze, known at the time as Little Dice (Douglas Silva), who quickly exhibits an appetite for power and killing.
In the ’70s, Ze consolidates his empire, flanked by trusted buddy Bene (Phelipe Haagensen), progressing from robbery to coke-dealing and wiping out all the competition save for rival dealer Sandro Cenoura (Matheus Nachtergaele), who’s protected by his friendship with Bene. This central section is perhaps the film’s most enjoyable, with a richly colorful character in Bene, who transforms himself into a bleach-blond playboy and whose mellow nature provides a useful counterweight to Ze’s hard, cold ambition. Planning to bow out of crime to grow weed on a farm with his girlfriend, Bene throws a farewell disco party but is killed in a skirmish before making his exit.
His departure leaves Cenoura suddenly vulnerable. But before Ze can eliminate him, he makes another formidable enemy in Manu Galinha (Seu Jorge), whose girlfriend is raped and brother is killed by the now 18-year-old gang leader. Teaming with Cenoura, Manu goes up against Ze in an escalating war, as Buscape’s photographs contribute to spread their notoriety in national media.
Creating a complex, non-linear narrative construction while maintaining a clear through line, the eventful mosaic is given a lively dynamic by its constant shifts in focus to foreground different characters, often fleetingly introduced with a promise to expand on their stories later. That liveliness is further enhanced by d.p. Cesar Charlone’s knockout visuals and Daniel Rezende’s machine-gun editing, both of which make stylistic transitions to differentiate between the three periods.
In addition to shooting style, color is used keenly. Early section when the favela is an undeveloped series of box houses divided by open, sandy stretches is bathed in golden light that gradually intensifies into richer, darker tones as the area becomes more built up, overpopulated and dominated by crime.
Devices such as split screen, slow-mo, jump cuts and whiplash pans add to the visual texture, with all the technical prowess bordering on show-offy at times, particularly early on. But the film’s pulsating rhythms, narrative heart and the intense faces and unself-conscious work of the non-pro cast — who went through an extensive workshop process before shooting — make this a hard-edged, taut and compelling crime odyssey, all the more powerful because its protagonists rarely reach the age of 20.