A ‘City’ far from ‘God’

A handheld camera focuses in on the small, gritty details of a man preparing a barbecue. Highlighted in bright hues of red and yellow, his greasy hands light the fire, cut the produce and sharpen a butcher knife. When he unties a rooster’s legs to butcher it, the animal escapes and takes flight in the chaotic city streets of Rio de Janeiro followed by a small posse of teenagers with outstretched arms. As the camera lens frenetically follows this comical spectacle with the herky-jerky motions of handheld cinematography graphically highlighting the lush, warm colors of the cityscape and the samba music in the background swells, the rooster chase is juxtaposed with a scene of two teenagers walking through the streets.

Eventually, the two groups meet in a wide alley and as Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), one of the teenagers, bends over to stop the rooster, a series of police vans appear in the intersection behind him. Immediately an arsenal of guns appears in the hands of both groups and the screen freezes as we suddenly flash back almost two decades.

This is the opening scene of “City of God,” the recent Brazilian import that played at Images last week. It is filmed with verve, audacity and stylistic panache. And it may as well be lifted directly from the opening scenes of “Amores Perros,” “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” or a host of other recent realistic and gritty urban crime capers and morality tales.

This is a film born from “Pulp Fiction” and other films of the ’90s that experimented with narrative chronology, film speeds, color filters, freeze frames and pans in addition to other playful cinematic techniques. The important distinction about “City of God,” though, is that it is not a cheap rip-off such as “Go” that seeks to imitate without any originality. It is a dynamic film filled with genuine acting by an amateur ensemble cast, vivid cinematography and epic storytelling.

“City of God” follows the travails of young Rocket from childhood into early adulthood as he ekes out a living and dreams of becoming a professional photographer amid the brutality of the title neighborhood, one of Rio’s most notorious slums. The movie begins in the ’60s as the Brazilian government constructs a village of plywood houses and ships in poor itinerant families from the country. As the narrative progresses through the early ’80s, we see this quiet primitive setting transformed into an urban jungle deathtrap of decaying apartment buildings and grimy streets.

The story builds through young Rocket as he tells the story of the “City of God” and its inhabitants from the eyes of a trio of amateurish thieves who rob gas trucks to the rise of rival gangs and a thriving drug industry.

The other protagonists are a psychotic crime boss known as L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), guilty of serial murder as a pre-pubescent and a drug lord by 18, and a heroic figure known as Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) who, prompted by the brutality of Ze, devolves into an equally violent hoodlum in the name of vengeance.

Surrounding these two is a colorful cast of characters who are the diverse residents of the slum: hippies, adolescent gang members, addicts, beggars, drug dealers and even a few honest hard-working folk. However, the narrative is secondary to the main objective of the film – to convey a sense of neighborhood torn apart by violence and poverty and the people who live there.

In this regard, the movie is far more successful than Martin Scorsese’s recent historical epic, “Gangs of New York,” with which it shares many similarities. The film is mostly factual and is based upon an autobiography by a famous Brazilian photojournalist, represented by Rocket. What comes through the extensive story is an image of urban poverty, violence and the emotions that are engendered by numerous tragedies and horrors.

One of the main appeals of “City of God” is the visual flair and the hyperactive, kinetic cinematic gimmicks used by cinematographer Cesar Charlone and directors Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles. They also ably interweave a variety of storylines and characters in a coherent fashion. Moreover, a fantastic score filled with a variety of musical genres including salsa, samba and funk highlights the entire experience.

However, the greatness and true heart of the movie lies in the many moments an astonishingly violent or affecting scene is played with emotional truth. A teenager must shoot a child in the foot to prove his toughness; an immensely powerful crime boss realizes he is unable to interact socially – a life of violence leaving him unable to love; a man’s face as he decides whether to kill for revenge; a group of children make a list of people they intend to murder; a scared, innocent young man is frozen in a massive battle between two warring gangs and the police.

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