DIRECTED BY Fernando Meirelles
STARRING Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Philippe Haagensen
OPENS January 3, Cert 18, 129 mins
There's a moment in the Brazilian crime drama City Of God that says it all. It's near the start and our hero-protagonist Rocket (Rodrigues) is standing in the centre of a dusty city side street. At one end, an excitable troop of policemen crouch behind an armoured van and point their guns in his direction while, at the other, an intimidating phalanx of street criminals cock their weapons and return the gesture. Both groups heckle each other, the former demanding that the latter disarm immediately, the latter demanding that the former go to hell. And in the middle stands Rocket, half-crouching, frozen with fear. And then it happens. We do a swift and dizzying circular dolly around the frozen Rocket, the backgrounds dissolve, he grows younger before our eyes, and we emerge nearly two decades previously with our hero on his haunches, on a dusty football field at the very beginning of the movie's diegetic narrative.
In that one bravura visual gesture, City Of God, via flamboyant director Fernando Meirelles, telegraphs to the viewer exactly what to expect for the next two hours: an epic era-spanning urban crime saga with a penchant for breathtaking bursts of cinematographic spectacle.
Which is hardly surprising, considering the central protagonist is an aspiring photographer, and as such reflects the movie's proudly conspicuous visual aesthetic. Rocket is the surrogate eye who documents nearly 20 years of brutal criminality inside the gang-controlled 'City of God' favela (housing project) in Jacarepaguá, Rio de Janeiro. What he sees is an overlapping compendium of ghetto tales eclectically distilled for the screen by writer Bráulio Mantovani from Paolo Lins' bestselling 700-page novel, Cidade de Deus.
In this underworld we have archetypal noirisms—the murdered adulterous wife, the failed motel robbery, the recidivist going straight, the soldier avenging his wife's rape, and the child avenging a parricide. But mostly we have the tale of psychotic criminal mastermind Li'Ze (da Hora). For despite the ostensible positioning of Rocket at the forefront of the narrative, the film very quickly establishes the horrific rise and fall of the wildly homicidal Li'l Ze as its core story. With nods to Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Tommy De Vito in GoodFellas and even Tony Montana in Scarface, da Hora's Li'l Ze is a mercurial psychopath determined to control the favela's cocaine trade at any cost to human life. His rise to Godfather status is accompanied by murderous intimidation, internecine faction fighting, and the devastating escalation of street battles through increasingly destructive firepower. And as if to underscore this point, Meirelles uses his camera like an Uzi. He's got bullet-point-of-view shots, Tarantino-esque murder montages, a slow-mo drug trade montage, and a beguiling 'locked-off' camera sequence called 'The Story Of The Apartment' that tells the rapid-fire tale of a seedy drug den from one fixed camera position. Added to the mix is César Charlone's saturated cinematography where, similar to the colour scheme of Alejandro Iñárritu's equally propulsive Amores Perros, interiors and night shots are often a sickly aquamarine while day exteriors are a parched, arid yellow.
Which makes City Of God one of the most visually pleasing crime flicks in a long time. Occasionally the film feels almost too spectacular for its own good. For it rarely seems concerned with the wider socio-political context of the favelas. Instead, the scenes of kids with guns, the visceral mass-murder montages, the thrilling shoot-outs, and the savage assassinations only fulfil the hollow demands of a genre that needs to consistently outdo itself in order to survive. As a document of provocative social history, City Of God sadly pales in comparison with the likes of Hector Babenco's São Paulo slum thriller Pixote (1981). But as a stylish crime saga for the post-Boogie Nights generation, this is one bar-raiser that'll be hard to beat.
Rating: 4 / 10