Brazil's gritty exposé City of God shows the impact of our cinematic exports in different countries. Screen the crime dramas of Scorsese and Tarantino in England, and a few years later you see their influence in such propulsive flashy exercises as Sexy Beast and Guy Ritchie's hopped-up heist pictures.
But introduce those same movies to directors in Latin America, and their inspiration is far more profound. Brazil's City of God, much like Mexico's Amores Perros, is also relentlessly stylish, using every cinematic trick at its disposal to craft a compelling narrative. But City of God uses violent pulp fiction to shed light on social ills, with the interlocking stories of Brazilian drug dealers revealing the corrosive effects of the country's poverty.
Co-directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund waste no time in displaying their visual panache. We get our first glimpse of the Rio de Janeiro slum called "City of God" via rapid, close-up shots at an open-air party, where music plays, chickens are plucked and knives are sharpened. A heroic hen makes a break for it, to be pursued down narrow, squalid alleys by a group of young men, whom we gradually notice are armed to the teeth. Amusingly, the camera rushes along at the chicken's eye-level.
City of God's narrator, a young man named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) happens to cross the chicken's path, and before he knows what's happening, he and the bird are caught in the middle of a street, looking down the barrels of the gang's guns at one end, with the police arriving at the other. The camera whips around Rocket and whirls us from the early 1980s back to the '60s, to recount how Rocket -- and his impoverished home -- have reached such a perilous state.
Rocket begins with "The Tale of the Tender Trio," a threesome of dashing young bandits who stick up propane trucks and give tanks to passersby. It's no wonder crime attracts the City of God's young men. In its early days, the slum consists of row after row of low-slung houses, with no electricity, paved roads or even color -- everything in sight shares the hue of sun-baked dirt. The police, prowling in tiny VW Beetles, are scarcely a deterrent.
The brains of the Tender Trio turns out to be a young boy named Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva), who advises the three older boys on how to make bigger scores, like stealing from the guests at a motel for illicit lovers. Li'l Dice turns out to be one of the most terrifying children ever caught on film, particularly when, after one robbery, he guns down helpless innocents and grins with amusement.
As the film shifts to the 1970s, Li'l Dice takes the name Li'l Ze (now played by Leandro Firmino da Hora) and becomes City of God's deadliest drug dealer. Rocket, meanwhile, aspires to get girls and become a photographer, having no stomach for breaking the law.
Rocket and Li'l Ze are merely the two most prominent figures in a film with dozens of characters. And that's merely a fraction of the individuals in the source material, the sprawling novel City of God, whose characters are based in part on real people. The film gets another level of authenticity by filling its cast almost entirely with amateur actors from the actual slums.
The film has a keen eye for the community's many cliques, with one open-air party attracting such groups as gangsters, church-goers, "the soul crowd" and "the groovies." City of God also tracks a mob of prepubescent boys nicknamed "The Runts," and in the film's most difficult scene, Li'l Ze punishes two of them for encroaching on his criminal territory.
At times City of God feels built on thin characterizations. When any movie focuses on a psycho with self-esteem issues like Li'l Ze, it ensures that nearly all confrontations will have bloody outcomes.
Meirelles and Lund show a technical command worthy of any high-tech action flick. Rocket's photography hobby justifies freeze-frames, and the film also uses speeded-up motion, split-screens and strobe lights. At best, the gimmickry illuminates the slum's way of life. "The Story of the Apartment" uses a single camera angle and a series of dissolves to show how a drug den passes from one unsavory owner to another.
City of God's social outrage gives the film its weight. The monstrous, bullying Li'l Ze may get our attention by embodying a ruthless philosophy worthy of Lord of the Flies. But the film genuinely mourns the decent citizens caught in the crossfire on Rio's mean streets.