Sensationally sensationalistic, Fernando Meirelles’s City of God spews like a magma jet. Mapping out the titular Rio housing project as it evolves from a sprawling ’60s wasteland to a mad, ’80s Gomorrah of drug trade, impulse killing, and nightened chaos, the film is both ghetto-hell realistic and nearly Homeric in its episodic, subjective mythomania. Unlike another current release about historic slum-gang warfare, Meirelles’s movie is anchored in poverty horror—you can smell the friction of experience on it.
At the same time, Meirelles indulges in extraordinary visual torch-juggling: panicky digital dollies, post-Matrix-style circumambulations around frozen moments, the p.o.v. of a ricocheting bullet, jazzy blax-era freeze-frames, massacres shot from overhead as if by satellite cameras, suddenly sped-up motion, abject strobe frenzy. It’s one of the very few films to use the crack-thwack-thump of David Fincher-style CGI visuals to actually expand its emotional palette—and not sour its verisimilitude with grandstanding.
Accordingly, the racially scrambled characters are swiftly and pulpishly drawn. Winnowed from Paulo Lins’s popular novel, the movie trampolines back and forth in time, following the witness-narrator-photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) from pre-adolescence to his twenties, when the City implodes in a year-long drug war. How this rat pit caught fire is the story Rocket tells, beginning with the fates of three relatively innocent armed-robbery buddies after a motel heist, and escalating with the ascension of Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva, and later, Leandro Firmino da Hora), a giggling, homicidal maniac child who grows up to be the slum’s gangster number one.
Save one, the entire, utterly convincing cast—adults, teens, and mobs of tykes—is nonprofessional and culled from Rio hellholes; according to Meirelles, the children would occasionally advise him on procedure and details when he was filming street violence. Though City of God has commonly been called the Brazilian answer to Amores Perros—they share a sun-scorched, high-contrast look; the new film is practically a study in blistered ochre—Meirelles’s movie is much more economical and fierce. (Here, dogfights are an unnecessary metaphor.) Like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s smash, City of God is a narrative tango, circling back on itself to revisit pivotal moments. The frantic opening chicken run and hoods-cops face-off—with Rocket standing stunned in the center—naturally climaxes the film, while Li’l Dice’s simple entrance into a well-known dope den is re-experienced no less than three times. (The history of that apartment itself is shot from a single, unmoving perspective, the years, debacles, and betrayals unfolding in a series of dissolves.) An inexplicable killing—of beleaguered, revenge-bent bus driver Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) by a kid who enlisted on his team—is explained in a retrospective montage tracing the boy’s motive.
At times, Meirelles’s movie has the detached, gun-crazy grandeur of Sergio Leone, only to come crashing down to the dirt with a scene of almost unbearable nastiness—as when Li’l Dice corners two larcenous kids (the youngest seems no older than six) and tortures them by shooting them in the feet. The sobbing in that scene is too real, but City of God is nothing if not confrontational. The sight of so many very small children carrying and using handguns is eventually disorienting—a collapse of civilized perspective that echoes Los Olvidados while singing the headlines.