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Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Bad boys from Brazil

City of God

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Portuguese, with subtitles in Japanese and English
Opens June 28 at Virgin Cinema Roppongi Hills

There are songs that can pull you in completely in mere seconds. Think those primal, rhythmic hooks that kick of, say, "Lust For Life" or "London Calling," riffs that you surrender to instantly.

News photo
Luis Otavio (above) and Douglas Silva (below) in Fernando Meirellels' "City of God"
News photo

It's a harder trick by far for movies to pull off, but the opening sequence of "City of God" -- a jagged, revved-up street history of Rio de Janeiro's drug gangs -- explodes off the screen with all the energy of a whip-crack James Brown backbeat.

Sharpened blades slash on stone. Hands slap out samba rhythms on drumheads. A gaggle of street kids laugh and jeer. Skewers of meat spatter on a grill. A terrified chicken tries to flee its fate as dinner. Wild-eyed gang-bangers fire wilder shots as they chase it down winding ghetto streets. These images flash at us in a series of pulse-like cuts, throbbing with the intensity of the rising percussion crescendo on the soundtrack.

The gang turns a corner and comes face to face with our narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young photographer who's been trying to hide from this very group of gun-wielding coke-heads. The chicken they're after stops at his feet. We hear a car pull up behind him, doors slam. The gang whips out an arsenal of handguns, pointing them seemingly straight at Rocket; the camera does a "Matrix"-like 180-degree spin and focuses on a thin line of police emerging with guns drawn at the other end of the street. Rocket freezes in between them, not knowing whether it's moving or not moving that will get him killed. Welcome to High Noon in the Cidade de Deus (City of God), the notoriously anarchic and violent favela (slum) on the fringe of Rio.

The above is one of the most bravura and tense opening sequences this side of "The Wild Bunch." In under two minutes, the film manages to suggest all its main themes: the ever-present threat of violence, the sense of no escape and the impossibility of remaining a neutral observer. From here the film brazenly spins back two decades in time, building back up to this moment which -- two hours later -- is suddenly re-played, with a title reading "The Beginning of the Film."

As should be clear, "City of God" is not your typical linear movie; it's as comfortable with neo-realist authenticity as it is with highly stylized, stagey camera work. Tellingly, co-director Katia Lund worked in documentaries, while Fernando Meirelles cut his teeth on commercials. This results in a film where the cast -- culled from real street kids, all nonprofessionals who grew up in the favelas -- were allowed to toss or change any line that didn't ring true. But it's also one where the sound of three violent knocks on a door is synchronized with three jarring jump-cuts of a gang ascending a staircase. Compressions of time, rich, saturated color, freeze-frames, split-screens, bullet-eye views -- the filmmakers use every means at their disposal to maximize the impact of their story.

And what a story it is: From a largely autobiographical novel by Walter Lins, the filmmakers fashion a tragic epic of crime and karma, where no one who picks up a gun -- not even the most sympathetic characters -- emerges unscathed.

"City of God" begins in the '60s, when Rocket is still a child, watching his older brother Goose (Renato de Souza) and his two mates spark off the first crime-wave in the newly constructed township, a desolate government dumping spot for the poor and homeless swept off the tonier beachfront real estate. The "Tender Trio," as they're known, engage in daring Robin Hood-esque holdups, but their fates turn sour when they hook up with a little psychopath known as Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva), a preteen gangster wannabe whose sadistic streak brings down the heat.

Cut to the '70s, and everyone's getting into dope, from Rocket and his gang of "Groovies" to Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Blackie (Rubens Sabino), the dealers who are pioneering this new business. Li'l Dice, now grown-up and known as Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), has become a feared killer and quickly takes over Blackie's business using a little of the old ultraviolence.

Li'l Ze's partner in crime, Beny (Phellipe Haagensen), gradually starts to mellow under the influences of ganja, funky soul music and his hippie girlfriend Angelica (Alice Braga, daughter of Sonia), but Ze heads in the other direction, getting even more brutal and paranoid under the influence of the coke that's seeping into the scene. Ze finally steps over the line when he and his thugs brutally rape the girlfriend of ex-soldier Knock-out Ned (Seu Jorge), a sharpshooter who comes down on Ze's gang like a wrathful avenging angel. Ned hooks up with Carrot's boys, and all-out gang warfare erupts on the streets of the City of God. And Rocket, with his camera, finds himself uniquely placed to capture it all.

"City of God" is one of those films -- like "Boogie Nights" or "Goodfellas" -- that's as much sprawling social history and generational ambience as it is about any specific characters. Beyond the gripping personal tales of risk and retribution, the film widens its focus to hint at both the social isolation of the favelas and the police corruption that fuels the fires of crime and unpunished violence.

These were facts that the filmmakers were only too aware of: Filming on location in the actual Cidade de Deus proved impossible, as neither city hall nor the police could guarantee the crew's safety in this no-go zone. But a nearby favela -- run by a somewhat older, more stable gang boss who controlled his turf from a prison cell -- proved amenable, provided the filmmakers agreed to shoot the reality (and not some Hollywood version of it) and that they dispersed plenty of work to the neighborhood.

Though there are many reasons to praise this film -- from the astounding cast who always manage to "keep it real" to the surprisingly dark humor that would make Quentin Tarantino grin -- it all comes back to the rhythm. There are few directors out there who can shape it and coax it out with the skill on display here. The first chapter unfolds with a clear, linear narrative flow, and as things start to spin out of control, so does the sequence of shots: Smooth continuity is tossed in favor of choppy, impressionistic jumps from shot to shot.

This reaches its peak in an absolutely brilliant scene shot in a disco, as Beny throws a goodbye party before leaving the 'hood. The scene builds deliriously as strobes totally distort the perspective, and shot after shot flashes in and out to the booty-groove of "Kung Fu Fighting." The funky party atmosphere gradually turns menacingly disorienting as an assassin ominously weaves through the crowd. Cinematic tension isn't often this well-crafted. Savor it.

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