City of God (DVD)

Director: Fernando Meirelles

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City of God (DVD)

The Brazilian City of God is a bravura piece of filmmaking that takes the gangster movie and brings it powerfully into the 21st century. Its intricate narrative—told in both flashbacks and flash-forwards—is tautly compelling, while its cinematography and editing are exhilarating. I can’t think of a gangster movie since Godfather II that’s as powerful and entertaining as this one.

The story’s set in the Cidade De Dues (City of God) barrio in Rio de Janiero. The protagonist is a teenage boy named Rocket (Sandro Cenoura) whose parents were honest workers but whose brother was a low-level thief that was killed when Rocket was young. Determined not to repeat his brother’s mistakes, Rocket dreams of becoming a photographer and tries to stay out of trouble. Staying out of trouble isn’t easy in the City of God, though. The immense housing project is run by the notorious drug lord Lil ‘Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a man not much older than Rocket. Li’l Ze rose to prominence by killing all but one of his rivals. As the plot unfolds, an explosion of violence seems almost inevitable.

Though the story of two rival factions battling over turf is one of the oldest gangster cliches, City of God tells its story with such panache and style that the whole enterprise seems fresh and new. Screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani (adapting from a book by Paulo Lins) opens the movie with a confrontation and then jumps back ten years to when both the barrio and Rocket were young. We’re introduced to boys who’ll end up drug lords as well as boys who won’t make it past puberty.

With as large and rich a cast of characters as City of God presents, it’d be easy to get confused, but the actors are so interesting and compelling that you won’t have any trouble following the action. Sandro Cenoura presents a solid and entertaining narrator, but it’s the bad guys (as usual) who truly command our attention. Da Hora, as Li’l Ze, is a force of nature, inhabiting his character as if he’d been running drugs his whole life. And Haagensen, as his partner Beny, is a strange and convincing mix of drug lord and laid-back hippie. There’s not a dull moment in City of God. It embraces a familiar genre and then elevates it to something spectacular. If you loved The Godfather movies (and who doesn’t?), you’ll love City of God.