Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was being chased by a horde of young Brazilian gangsters as shown in the opening scene of the excellent City Of God. Set in the mean streets of a Brazilian slum this superb movie is a stunning, intense, gripping, hard-edged crime drama about the lives of a group of friends, families and enemies spanning two decades.
The film is based on the sprawling epic novel by Paulo Linsich, which documents the true story of life in the poverty and crime stricken slum area of Brazil known as the City Of God. Expertly directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles the movie is yet another example of the growing Latin American movement of high quality cinema which seems to have bridged the cultural gap with such recent gems as Nine Queens, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También. Add to these great movies City Of God, which shows that exciting, fresh and original films can still be made alongside the more familiar multiplex diet of blockbusters and sequels.
The film is seen through the eyes of the young Rocket, an aspiring photographer and it's his photographer's eye that guides us through the years of blood and bullets in the slums of Brazil. But Rocket is not the traditional protagonist; he is merely the door through which the audience enters the story. It's no coincidence that he is a would be photographer for it is what he sees, what he shows us, that is most important rather than his own tale. We first meet him in the opening chicken chase caught between the police and the gangs. From this cliffhanger moment we are sent back to the beginning, to the formative years of all the characters in the mid-sixties. But not all will be alive when we return to Rockets perilous situation almost two hours later.
This movie has been compared to Goodfellas and whilst it's true that there are similarities (e.g. Rocket the narrator's voiceover, the flashback style) to make these comparisons does the film a disservice. It is its own animal combining many cinematic devices with a fresh approach to create an unforgettable experience. The techniques are many and varied; freeze frame, fast motion, slow motion and split screen are used and coupled with gritty hand held camerawork to give an authentic reality to the picture and a kinetic energy. The cast add to the quasi-documentary feel. Many are from the area, some have no previous acting experience but all are totally convincing in their portrayal of criminals and innocents rubbing shoulders with bloody consequences. No more apparent is this than in a heart-stopping scene in which one child has to make an unbelievable choice whilst looking down the barrel of a gun, held by an equally youthful gangster.
Some characters are drawn into crime through desperation, circumstance or revenge, others are more evil in their motivations. No one can escape the crime, everyone is tainted to a greater or lesser degree no matter who they are. Violence is the common link between all of the citizens of the City Of God, it colours their everyday experiences and decisions for good or for bad. Their lives are expertly woven together; Rocket introduces characters on the sidelines but then pushes on with the story, returning to tell a more detailed account of them later. The narrative rushes forward catching up with characters, going back and showing us previous events but almost all meet up, with their stories interconnecting at various times. This constant change between characters creates a real sense of the way violence and crime touches all lives in the City Of God, which is far removed from the familiar tourist image of Rio.
If there is a central character then it is arguably Li'l Dice (later to be rechristened Li'l Ze), the young criminal at odds with his older lawbreaking friends and far more dangerous than any of them. His best friend is Benny, his conscience, the voice of reason and one of the few really likeable characters. The casting here is again excellent with the young and old counterparts perfectly suiting each other and in the case of Li'l Dice/Ze combining to give a portrayal of a psychopathic individual arguably far more disturbing than anything seen on the silver screen in many years. His early youthful actions carried out with such calculated vigour make for shocking moments.
As mentioned the atmosphere this movie creates is superb. You are brought right into the lifestyle of the slums in such scenes as the standout moment when the history of a single apartment - its change from a home to a drug den - is presented in a single static shot. The music also adds to the film, Brazilian rhythms not only give a sense of time and place but also add to the tension, particularly in the great nightclub scenes. What is also unavoidably startling is the age of all concerned, no one is far out of their teenage years and some are barely into double fingers. A sharp contrast to Hollywood's Italian-American gangster movies and a point brought home by the films final chilling moments. But there are also scenes of humour to alleviate the violence, such as when Rocket decides to embark on a life of crime - instead of robbing a store he ends up getting the phone number of the young girl behind the counter, which leads to another moment of hilarity when hitchhiking with a second potential victim.
City Of God is one of the most exciting, inventive and heart pumping experiences around. A movie which draws you into its world like few have before with it's authentic setting and characters. Indeed it is individuals such as Li'l Dice, Benny and Knockout Ned that linger in the memory long after the final credits have rolled. It is perfectly edited and visually amazing, with an inventive combination of hand held camera work and modern cinematic techniques. Add to this an intoxicating score and a top class cast delivering natural, cliché free performances and you have a must see movie.