Reports that City of God was made by culling urchins off the pavements of Rio and teaching them to be themselves before a camera led me to expect something like Pixote or Salaam Bombay!, coarse documents of youthful, desperate street smarts. In fact, though drawn from actual events, this lush and violent film is closer in spirit to one of Martin Scorsese's baroque renditions of life and death on the mean streets - think Gangs of New York or Goodfellas rather than Survivor Does the Inner City. City of God derives its texture in part from its origins in a novel; a narrator frames the entire story and introduces characters as characters, while sections of the film are designated by chapter titles. But some of the film's distinctive style is no doubt also due to creative tension between two co-directors of very different backgrounds. Kátia Lund came to the project from making documentaries, while Fernando Meirelles is a veteran creator of TV commercials. City of God offers raw exposure to Rio's savage, youthful street culture, but refracts it through overt and artful cinematography and editing. If this is Candid Camera, the lenses, lighting, and arrangement of the frames are not invisible.

Dir. Kátia Lund & Fernando Meirelles; writ. Bráulio Montovani, based on a novel by Paulo Lins; feat. Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge (R)

An aspiring photographer who calls himself Rocket (Rodrigues) narrates City of God. When we first see him, camera in hand, he is caught in the crossfire between a neighborhood gang and corrupt police. In an early flashback to the 1960s, he is being bullied by other boys on a makeshift soccer field. The son of a fishmonger and younger brother of a prominent hoodlum, Goose, along with bandit cronies named Shaggy and Clipper, constitutes the fearsome "Tender Trio," with whom Rocket hopes to survive the neighborhood long enough to leave it. A budding interest in photography enables him to distance himself from the criminal activities around him. Rocket is the most sympathetic of the characters, and seeing everything through his relatively innocent eyes makes the gruesome proceedings more palatable.

When prepubescent thugs called the Runts run wild through the grocery he works in, Rocket, erroneously accused of complicity, is fired. "It was like a message from God," he concludes about the injustice. "Honesty doesn't pay, sucker." Yet Rocket has trouble acting on the message. Every time he plots dishonesty he ends up taking pity on his intended victim. While other citizens of God are robbing shops, pushing drugs, and adding to the endless carnage, Rocket remains committed to two goals - becoming a photographer and losing his virginity. The two eventually merge, in the least convincing moment of the movie, but Rocket remains a likable and reliable witness to the general havoc. The photographer's role as witness to outrage is shared by anyone who steps in off the streets to view what Lund and Meirelles have placed upon the screen.

Transformed by love, one gang member attempts, unsuccessfully, to retire from violence. Another character declares: "I'm not a hoodlum," but a thirst for vengeance draws him, like Prince Hal, ineluctably into blood-shedding. Sexual frustration and jealousy drive yet another to become, temporarily, the district's most ferocious gangster. Bloodier than Macbeth or even Timon of Athens, if City of God needed an epigraph from Shakespeare it would be what Thersites declares in Troilus and Cressida: "War and lechery confound all."

It would certainly not be what Jesus declares according to Mark: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." Such is the City of God that in it the little children both suffer and cause the suffering. Except for an occasional cop, taking graft or gunning down victims indiscriminately, adults, like Voltaire's God, are largely absent. In the film's opening scene, repeated toward the end, a band of kids carves up a live chicken and then races down the street in pursuit of another bird with brains enough to flee. For more than two hours, the butchery is unrelenting, an endless procession of homicidal minors, murderers being murdered. Even Rocket, recording it all, like Lund and Meirelles, has no hope of using the shocking images he collects to do anything but advance his career. Grace is a cruel joke in City of God. All one can do is prey. •


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