First-time Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” transports viewers to a decrepit, violent place that most of us will never visit during a time of supreme instability that most of us could never imagine or ever hope to witness. In every facet of the story and its construction, Meirelles confronts a harsh reality with an abrupt lens. Sometimes the imagery is so powerful it prompts disgust and turns heads, but at all times, the omnipresent camera captivates and somehow transforms ugliness – inhumane and insufferable – into a picture as profound as it is beautiful.
From the opening images of a knife sharpening and a chicken chase that leads to guns ablaze, the situation encompassing the wandering innocence of the hopeful photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) explodes with the impending death and violence that he cannot escape. Following one of the more overused recent cinematic trends, “City of God” explores temporal shifts and non-linear storytelling; but it manages itself to the utmost effectiveness.
In the 1960s, the city was less than a barrio; it served as a home for transients and the poor, built to prevent contamination in the tourist attraction of Rio de Janeiro. Overwrought with scum and hoods, the city’s kids take it upon themselves to live via the gun. Rocket’s brother Goose and two other boys form the Tender Trio, the gang that supersedes all others in the shanty town. This band of misfits soon breaks up and two end up dead, leaving the power in the hands of a young Li’l Ze, who becomes a star-crossed and feuding warmonger.
What becomes even more wondrous than the kids’ lifestyles is the intrinsic violence and apathy amongst the people. No matter how hard any individual tries, the destruction prevents them from escaping. The 1960s bleed into the 1970s, the dust-pit of life turns into a neighborhood and the gangs become dealers with power backed by firepower. The explosive personalities inside the city, especially the gang leaders, darken the hopefuls and kill off the innocent. Even those who try their hardest to stay away from the trouble manage to get sucked into the unholy war.
At first glance, “Cidade de Deus” – the Portuguese translation of “City of God”- seems more a label rife with irony and distaste. According to name, what should be a beacon of light and joy, Cidade de Deus envelopes a delineation more apt for hell than heaven. But the intricacies of the movie, the sad but beautiful impossibilities in the lives of these young men, implant a deeply significant, almost divine meaning into its pain and unfathomable evil.
Some overly utilized and Hollywoodized editing and camera tricks are employed in a fresh and elegant manner. What would be construed as clich