Blame it on Rio

Alexandre Rodrigues as Rocket, who figures the lens is mightier than the sword, in <i>City of God</i>.

Alexandre Rodrigues as Rocket, who figures the lens is mightier than the sword, in City of God.

Rated 5.0

City of God is a cinematic paradox. This dramatization of life from the late 1960s to 1980s in Cidade de Deus, a poverty-stricken and lawless housing project far from downtown Rio de Janeiro, is both difficult to watch and mesmerizing. It is a provocative, controversial excursion through purgatory and hell on Earth, based on the 600-page book by former Cidade inhabitant Paulo Lins. The film has been both praised for its artistic and topical bravado and condemned for focusing mostly, and rather impersonally, on the negative aspects of the region (one Cidade crowd reportedly ransacked the projection booth in reaction to a screening).

Like the similarly potent Amores Perros and Black Hawk Down, City of God is not merely a rubberneck tour of an urban underbelly or war zone. It is not a live-action Oliver Stone cartoon of mayhem and amorality, such as U-Turn and Natural Born Killers. Its style and tempo, a smorgasbord of breathless camera movement and kinetic editing, punctuate the daily challenges and eventual chaos of a city under siege. Its episodic structure evolves into a sort of slum version of Lord of the Flies in which kids with guns, drug gangs and the police plague and massacre each other and innocents alike with matter-of-fact, law-of-the-jungle boldness.

The story is narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man who does not want to become just another amateur hood like his older brother. “To be a real hood, you need more than just a gun,” says Rocket. “You need ideas.” He exhibits no natural talent with either and aspires instead to become a photographer.

We first meet Rocket in the early 1980s, as he strolls down local streets with a camera in his hand and a friend at his side. He has graduated from novice to published photographer and wants to avoid crossing paths with a local gang leader. Rocket’s walk is intercut with scenes of a busy open-air marketplace. Chickens appear to watch nervously as their feathered sisters are slaughtered, boiled and sold to passing shoppers. One bird escapes the knife. It flees down alleys and over short walls, with gun-toting thugs in delirious pursuit. The chase ends with a tense standoff in which Rocket and the fugitive fowl suddenly are trapped in the middle of a street between the advancing hoods and a growing cluster of cops.

Fernando Meirelles and co-director Kátia Lund vigorously have set the stage for a showdown that is not quite ready to implode. First, we are transported back to the late 1960s and then through the drug-drenched 1970s in the ironically named City of God.

We are introduced to the opportunistic Shaggy, ultra-cool Bene, errand boy Steak and Fries, the dangerous juvenile delinquents called Runts, notorious killer Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and the revenge-driven Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).

We witness rape, police corruption and the bloodiest motel robbery in Brazilian history. The film plunges headfirst into a world in which hoods don’t love but lust, don’t converse but smooth-talk, and don’t give up their criminal lifestyles but do take occasional breaks.

Bráulio Mantovani’s script is sprawling and purposely disjointed, and splotched with black humor. Cinematographer César Charlone uses an intoxicating pallet of saturated and mood-altering colors. The soundtrack cuts a wide swath from indigenous music to Raul Sexia (the Brazilian equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic), James Brown and Tower of Power. And the cast, mostly young Cidade residents, enhances the film’s authenticity with heavily improvised dialogue.

City of God is filled with unforgettable images. “Man Buries Wife Alive in City of God” reads one newspaper headline. Sweat drops from an armed robber hiding in a tree into the water below like falling bombs. The camera chases a ricocheting bullet. An ambush in a strobe-lit nightclub feels like a slow-motion nightmare. And the running body count is kept in fractured time that leaps forward and backward, and from character to character, in candid, jarring and tragic spurts.

In one of the most disturbing scenes, a sobbing mini-hood about 8 years old is asked to choose between being shot in the hand or foot. To the film’s credit, this and other such moments are more powerful than exploitative, and subsequent discussions of their issues have spilled from Brazilian arts and cultural news into the Brazilian political arena.