Brazilian Cinema Comes Alive in Gritty, Stylish 'City of God'

By Jeremy Mathews

“City of God”
Miramax Films
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Screenplay by Braulio Mantovani, based on the novel by Paulo Lins
Produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Starring Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigues, Firmino da Hora, Phelipe Haagensen and Johnathan Haagensen
Rated R
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Opens tomorrow at the Tower
(out of four)

During the end credits of “City of God,” we see archival footage of a TV news interview with a person who is portrayed in the film and it looks almost exactly like the interview that the character gave in the film. It’s here that the horror evoked throughout the film resurfaces and becomes even more shocking—all this insane violence more or less happened.

The film is a masterwork of Brazilian cinema that captures the street lives of boys and young men living in a housing project on the skirts of Rio de Janeiro. That the film is based on a well researched novel makes the evil of many of the film’s child characters all the more shocking.

Director Fernando Meirelles employs a wide cinematic vocabulary, taking cues from the likes of “GoodFellas” and the cinematic effects from “The Matrix,” among others.

He also uses a number of structural tricks that have become popular in recent years, but are rarely so effective. The story weaves through time, flashing back to reveal details from different perspectives of an event. At certain moments, the picture freezes as the narrator looks at characters who will become important later or ponders a missed opportunity to kill a brutal criminal.

The narrator is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who witnesses the neighborhood’s violence as he comes of age. He’s not a criminal himself, however. The one time that he flirts with crime—after his boss unjustly fires him from a lame job—he makes the mistake of getting to know the people he plans to rob and realizes that they’re “just too cool.”

The movie opens with a noise orchestra of the city’s sounds until impending violence disturbs the scene and Rocket is found in between a gang of street thugs and an army of police officers. Then it flashes back to Rocket’s childhood, when his brother had formed a crime trio with two friends.

The introduction gives us the sense that we’re in the hands of an assured, energetic director and Meirelles proves this again and again throughout the film. The style is almost dizzying, presenting the reality of violence while reaching an exuberant level of camera trickery and storytelling.

The camera is at once hand-held to capture the rawness of the street and able to put an expressionistic angle on things with fluid movement and excellent editing.

With Rocket as an independent observer, the film reveals many details, showing police corruption and other elements that allow the gangs to thrive. It also makes some droll observations. For example, once a gang leader kills off all his possible competition, the streets are safer for civilians because there are no street fights. Also, he forbids robbing local businesses, favoring jumping oil trucks instead.

At the same time, he’s a brutal man who prefers resorting to violence over controlling his temper. It’s partly through luck that anyone survives the city without offending him.

Fairly soon, we see violence begetting more violence, and the good become bad. Titles announce different people’s stories as they rise to importance.

At the end, we reflect on how easily anyone could become a casualty of the street fights. Growing up in the projects is an accomplishment of itself. Early in the film, a virtuoso shot follows a ricocheting bullet as it heads toward a character’s reflection and breaks a car’s rear-view mirror. It could have just as easily been the young man.

The more the film is remembered and considered, the more remarkable it becomes. The film’s very real characters must decide whether violence surrounds them or if they will join in. Whichever decision they make, it’s not easy to survive.

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