The setting is a real place called Ciudad de Deus, a ramshackle town where Rio de Janeiro’s poorest are relocated to preserve Brazil’s leading tourist attraction. Lacking running water and electricity, it is a breeding ground for wild children who run through the streets with nothing to do but commit crimes, however petty and pointless.
Even the thug life here is low-rent. The city’s first gang, three man-children called the Tender Trio, rules the neighborhood with a few rusty revolvers, robbing delivery trucks and running from the cops on bare feet. Lil’ Dice, a younger boy who hangs around the Trio, is unsatisfied with their unorganized and unimaginative ways. He has a leaner, hungrier look, and bigger ideas. When the gang robs a flop house, he target practices with the patrons and staff. Then he spends his time on the lam perfecting his point-blank aim, returning years later to claim some City of God turf as an 18-year-old badass rechristened Lil’ Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora). A cold-blooded killer with agate eyes, he easily takes over most of the city, transforming a sleepy town’s few isolated pot houses into a teeming market of cocaine production.
“City of God” is a movie about the Lil’ Zés of our imagination; he’s the boogeyman stalking the perimeter of our gated, civilized society. We witness his villainous deeds through the same narrator who introduced the Tender Trio, a gentle younger brother of one of the three who recounts the exploits of “City of God’s” notorious citizens, all equipped with nicknames: Carrot, Blacky, Big Boy, Knockout Ned and a group of up-and-comers called the Runts. This is “Lord of the Flies” where the authorities are kept at bay with money, and the children never grow up. They’re just replaced by ones who are younger, tougher and more crazily ruthless.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), our guide, is the contemplative mind above the fray, the moral compass in the wilderness of a lawless society. The action he describes is sensational and hard-boiled, like a Western novella of the early 20th century. The result plays like a cross between “Fresh” and “El Mariachi,” between meditating on a gun and looking down its barrel.
Co-directors Meirelles and Lund have created a vivid visual document of slum life in South America. Using nonprofessional actors, they people this canvas of dusty streets and concrete row houses with living, breathing and profusely sweating characters, along with their grimy clothes and the flies that buzz around them. The only things missing are the rare adults and their mundane existence of cooking, cleaning and laboring.
Screen time is reserved for the movie’s engrossing action, a variety of the familiar gangsterland spectacles of stickups and gun battles. It’s actually fitting that the one Oscar “City of God” was not nominated for was Best Foreign Language Film (it’s in Portugese with English subtitles). Its highly stylized “Goodfellas” moments — quick pans, voiceovers and jumbled sequencing to tell back stories — are fawningly American.
The filmmakers must have guessed that using such techniques would make their story harder to swallow, since they chose to add documentary footage of the real combatants to the closing credits. They’re assuring us that this really happened, but it doesn’t help the suspicion that “City of God” is the glamorous version, the story as the participants would tell it. The result, however gripping, leaves the viewer with the nagging feeling they’ve been hoodwinked. *** S
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