Straight outta Ipanema

Forty years ago, the name Rio de Janeiro conjured up dreams of a girl from Ipanema. Now it makes us think about crime. I've had friends held up at knifepoint, pulled from taxicabs and robbed, picked clean by squadrons of children who swarm the beaches like devouring locusts. And these victims were comfortably middle-class. One can only imagine how dangerous it must be to live in one of the favelas, the vast slums that, in a surreal piece of urban collage, exist cheek by jowl with communities of wealth: imagine walking a block from the Beverly Center and suddenly finding yourself inside a sprawling Third World shantytown run by drug dealers and trigger-happy kids.

This is the world depicted in City of God, a jolt of gripping sensationalism that became a phenomenon in Brazil. Based on a long autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, it stars black and mixed-race street kids (most between 12 and 20) and re-creates a world that most Brazilians would never dare enter: the real-life Rio favela called with no little irony Cidade de Deus. But Fernando Meirelles' movie is neither a sociological treatise nor an artistic heir of Hector Babenco's 1981 Pixote, whose unsentimental neo-realism chronicled the horrific lives of Brazil's abandoned children. Rather, like Amores Perros, this is a piece of internationalized Latin American cinema inspired (to put it mildly) by o cinema americano—Tarantino, P.T. Anderson and, above all, the Martin Scorsese of GoodFellas.

Jittery, music-fueled and haunted by the specter of early death, City of God is held together by the wry voice-over of its young hero, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an amateur photographer who dreams of escaping the favela. After an adrenalized '80s prologue involving gangsters, guns and a runaway chicken, Rocket's narration takes us back to the early '60s and the just-built Cidade de Deus housing project, a dreary stretch of sand-colored shanties out on the desolate fringes of Rio. Although the slum was mired in unhappiness from the start, these comparatively mellow days come bathed in the literally golden light of nostalgia. Reefer was still the drug of choice, guns were used mostly to threaten, not murder, and hoodlums like Rocket's amiable brother Goose were more feckless than sinister.

Then, over the next decade, everything darkens (including the film's palette), a change embodied here by the bloody rise of Li'l Z (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a live-wire sociopath who's essentially Rocket's murderous alter ego—he seems to have burst from the womb clutching a pistol. His taste for murder comes in handy as he takes over the drug trade, which now centers on cocaine, and comes to govern nearly the whole favela, raking in the dough and dispensing rough justice to anyone who violates the criminal code of ethics in his territory. But just as Li'l Z starts to become famous—thanks to Rocket's photographs—he discovers that history is conspiring against him. Not only is Z caught in a death dance with another gang, spearheaded by one Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), whose girlfriend he once raped; but he's also surrounded by the Runts, amoral 10- and 12-year-olds even more eager to live fast and die young than he was at their age.

From beginning to end, City of God doesn't just hold you; it clutches your lapels with its lurid exuberance. Meirelles made his name directing Brazilian TV (lots of commercials) and has a hyperkinetic panache to make Guy Ritchie weep. There's never a dull minute. Although one is initially struck —and quite possibly annoyed—by the showoffy visual effects (all those freeze-frames, jump cuts, bursts of fast motion, Matrix-y digitalized pans), one soon discovers that Meirelles and screenwriter Brulio Mantovani have a terrific gift for pop storytelling. There are nifty time slips, cunning shifts in POV, jokey chapter headings, and clever set pieces, such as the strobe-lit disco murder sequence to “Kung Fu Fighting,” the bank-robbery montage showing Knockout Ned's introduction to the niceties of crime, and the witty scene that uses a single apartment to provide a potted history of the local drug trade: the camera never moves, but as different people pass in and out of the apartment, we witness Cidade de Deus becoming a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Meirelles shares both Scorsese's keen interest in how things work (the movie explains all the jobs in the hierarchy of the coke biz) and his ability to make even minor parts come alive. City of God teems with vividly drawn characters: the riveting Li'l Z, tormented by his own ugliness; his playboy partner Benny, an affable, Hawaiian-shirted dude beloved by everyone; his rival Carrot, who wears a smile full of low cunning; even a chatty neighbor lady who explains how to use a heated banana to maximize sexual pleasure.

But if City of God whirs with energy for nearly its full 130-minute running time, it is oddly lacking in emotional heft for a work that aspires to the epic. None of the leads has the complexity or mythic force of a Scarface or Michael Corleone—no gangsters as tragic heroes—and even though the film is ultimately about the hellishness of Cidade de Deus itself, Meirelles doesn't capture enough of this slum's ordinary life to attain full Brueghelian richness. True, he gives us a punchy tabloid sense of the self-contained favela world, with its grinding poverty, run-amok children and brutally corrupt cops. But rather than coming to understand the texture of daily life there—Where are the mothers? Where are the people who work for a living?—we get the romanticized gangster version that makes every moment climactic. To judge from City of God, you'd think dozens of people had been slaughtered there every day back in the '70s, when the reality, though terrible, wasn't nearly so violent. Then as now, the true horror of Cidade de Deus was that of poverty's daily grind and the inhabitants' hopeless awareness that the ruling elite has simply written them off. Theirs was a world of need, boredom and fear—punctuated, to be sure, by spasms of violence.

Meirelles knows all this, yet he probably thought he needed melodramatic hyperbole to win over his audience's hearts and minds. Too often, though, he aims even lower. Few things could be more viscerally wrenching than when Li'l Z sticks a gun in the hand of 10-year-old Steak N Fries, points to two small weeping boys, and orders him to shoot the child of his choice. It's an upsetting scene, yet its most disturbing feature may be the shameless way Meirelles works us over. Indeed, for all its pretense to social significance, City of God is essentially a tarted-up exploitation picture whose business is to make ghastly things fun. Early on, when the young Li'l Z (known then as Li'l Dice) guns down innocent guests at a love hotel, his delight is presented so glamorously there's little doubt the filmmakers are getting off on the violence, too. (Of course, it's hard to get too huffy about a Brazilian director doing this when I live in a city that has taught the world so many different ways to turn killing into entertainment.)

Half a century ago, Luis Buuel made Los Olvidados, a classic so flinty it even portrayed a blind street musician unsympathetically. Since then, there has flourished a tradition of harsh movies about the plight of street kids: Pixote, Mira Nair's Dickensian Salaam Bombay, the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society, Victor Gaviria's Bogot-based The Rose Seller, Indonesian Garin Nugroho's tender Leaf on a Pillow and virtually the whole career of Larry Clark. Although many of these films are “powerful” (the usual term of approbation), I'm always made slightly queasy by films that take impoverished young non-actors, then package the squalor and violence of their lives for the consumption of viewers safely removed from such realities. These projects don't necessarily help their stars: Fernando Ramos da Silva, who played Pixote, wound up getting killed by the police, and I'm told that Salaam Bombay's star, Shafiq Sayed, wound up back on the streets. No matter how nobly intentioned, such movies are more likely to satisfy our voyeurism than to engender any newfound sense of social responsibility. Walking from the theater, I found myself wondering: Do Brazilians really need a movie to show them that Rio's favelas are infernal compounds run by drug barons and that this state of affairs is devastating for the people who live there? Maybe they do, but wouldn't the real Cidade de Deus be better served by a film less eager to shock and bedazzle us with incessant, graphic violence? There's more to the poor, after all—even the criminal poor—than the cruelty with which their lives sometimes end.

City of God was directed by Fernando Meirelles and Ktia Lund; written by Brulio Mantovani, from Paulo Lins' novel; produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos; and stars Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Firmino da Hora. Now playing at the Grove, Los Angeles, and Laemmle Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

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