Oh boy. Now this is something else! Those who called Gangs of New York last year’s best film in spite of all its flaws are bound to back-pedal when they see “Cidade De Deus”, a new Brazilian film every bit the sprawling, ruthless depiction of gang warfare that Martin Scorsese tried but failed to make work. Meirelles’ movie is sharp where Scorsese’s was loose, its characters feel infinitely more real, the direction is less messy and it doesn’t bother sticking to a restrictive, tired plot. There are romantic angles and elements of revenge in “Cidade de Deus”, but they emerge smoothly out of a thick tapestry of events instead of sticking out like the clichés in Gangs of New York . Meirelles’ film feels like a big thick novel, gracefully intercrossing various storylines set in the slums of Brazil’s “City of God” over the course of two decades, moving back and forth chronologically and taking all sorts of tangents yet remaining surprisingly cohesive.
The film is narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a would-be photographer who’s been close to hoodlums all his life but never participated in their criminal activities. He’s a neutral observer, telling it like it is without passing judgement, even though the young thugs around him are often wildly amoral. Long gone are the days in the 1960s when Rocket’s brother Goose and the Tender Trio, who got off on robbing gas trucks who had the misfortune of passing through the hood, were the exception. Before long younger, more malicious kids would raise hell in the Cidade, holding up every store, filling the streets with drugs and shooting anyone who gets in their way. As mentioned, there’s no conventional three-act structure, we just follow a bunch of these guys through (few) good times and (many) bad times. There’s Benny (Phelipe Haagensen), Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) and all kinds of multilayered, fascinating characters, and then there’s Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora, making his breathtaking debut), a crazy mofo if there ever was one. He murders countless people not only in cold blood but gleefully, which makes him all the more terrifying. The film eventually converges towards an all-out war for the control of the drug trade, but as we’ve seen the history of this place and these people, all that mayhem is much more affecting.
“Cidade de Deus” uses every trick in the MTV book (it even invents some, like the chicken-cam!) but somehow it remains natural-feeling and clear even though it’s all over the place. This must be because Meirelles crafts the film with an expert hand, knowing when to rush and when to take it slow. While this is a rough, extremely violent film, it manages moments of tenderness and hope for the (relatively) good guys, which makes the mayhem around them even more disturbing and tragic. Also offering a contrast to the harshness of this life is the beauty of the surroundings. Most of the film uses warm, earthy colors, and we can practically taste the sweaty heat of Brazil. This isn’t one of those film where crime occurs deep in the shadows, here people kill and get killed under the sun, fifteen miles from the beach. Hell-by-the-sea…
This is almost too much movie to handle in one viewing, Goodfellas on top of Menace II Society on top of The Wild Bunch… And then it’s something entirely original, maybe some sort of new-and-improved Blaxploitation epic, with all the great funk music, the afros, the attitude and the violence, but built around complex characters with an incredible attention to detail and based-on-real-events poignancy. “Cidade de Deus” is first-rate moviemaking. Find it, see it, cherish it.