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City of God

The gangster film has been a staple of American cinema since the days of prohibition. Audiences have flocked to the dangerous characters and thrilling stories, actors have jumped at the chance to put on the tailored, dark suit and the pulled-down fedora, and directors have been gratified to tell a story that has both popular and critical appeal. In fact, the gangster genre has achieved such renown and popularity that real-life gangsters have endeavored to imitate their cinematic counterparts, and entire musical forms have arisen merely so their stars can pose for their "close-up." Even other national cinemas have emulated the largely American myth of the gangster. Unfortunately, those imitations have been largely inferior, save for a few Hong Kong movies. Until now.

City of God, a new movie from Brazil, 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 The Godfather II that's as powerful and entertaining as this one.

The story is set in the Cidade De Deus (City of God) bairro in Rio de Janiero. The protagonist is a teenage boy named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) 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, and he runs the operation with a boyhood friend named Beny (Philippe Haagensen). Beny is much more laid back, a strange combination of gangster and hippy. Since he was also boyhood friends with Carrot, Li'l Ze's main rival, he's able to keep the peace between the two factions. Li'l Ze has clearly watched too many gangster movies, however, and fashions himself as the godfather of the entire bairro. When Beny decides to get out of the business, 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 bairro and Rocket were young. We're introduced to boys who will end up being drug lords as well as boys who won't make it past puberty. We see Angelica (Alice Braga), Rocket's first love who later falls for Beny. We see Li'l Dice, who will grow up to be Li'l Ze. And we see how the cops in the bairro are just another part of the criminal operation.

As the tale unfolds, we're introduced to other fascinating characters who flesh out both the bairro and the story. Knockout Ned, an upstanding bus fare collector, shows up early in the narrative, but the movie cheekily tells us that it's not yet time for his story. Sure enough, later on he takes on a much more prominent role. So it is with other young men with evocative names like Shorty and Li'l Dice. We briefly meet them in one scene, learn a little about them, and then only later recognize their significance.

With as many 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. Alexandre Rodrigues 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 Beny, is completely convincing as a drug lord who might actually want to retire to a farm somewhere.

If City of God's storytelling prowess was its only strength, it'd still be well worth seeing. But its flashy cinematography, courtesy of Cesar Charlone, is full of gritty, hand-held, documentary-like camerawork as well as beautiful tracking shots. It's a striking mix and extraordinarily effective. In one stunning shot, we watch a boy running away from the cops as his girlfriend watches from a driving car. The sense of movement and energy is just tremendous. But even more impressive is the spectacular editing (Daniel Rezende). I can't remember a movie that used both dissolves and rapid-fire jump cuts to such tremendous effect. They propel the movie along, establishing relationships between characters and clueing in the audience to what's just happened and what's coming next. There's not a dull moment in City of God; it is quite simply the most exciting movie I've seen in months.

As with every gangster film, the violence level is high. But here the violence feels like it means something, that there are consequences to people's actions. That doesn't mean you should necessarily let your teenage son buy a ticket, but it's not the gratuitous violence that we see in so many action movies.

Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum often complains that foreign films could be just as popular as Hollywood fare if only they were marketed with the same euphoria. I appreciate the sentiment, though I'm usually skeptical of that argument. American audiences crave the familiar, and foreign films are nothing if not different. But City of God is the exception. This is a movie that 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

 J. Robert Parks 1/29/2003


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