Earthly hell

A Rio de Janeiro the travel brochures have never shown.

Walking out of City of God after watching more than two hours of poverty, misery, random cruelty, dashed hopes and more murders than one could keep track of, I was struck by how entertaining it all was. Sure, there’s a message of sorts here, an explicit social critique, and one would have to be pretty hardhearted not to be concerned about the appalling youth of its doomed protagonists. But it all played out like a hyperkinetic, updated and transplanted Warner Bros. gangster film of the ’30s, with more than a touch of Scorsese-like stylization. Maybe it’s a matter of having become accustomed, after years of watching so many versions of hell-on-earth served up as satisfying tragedies complete with cathartic highlights, to the conventions of cinematic suffering, so much more dramatic than real life, and so wonderfully contained. Or maybe this is a more subjective quirk than I realize — a woman sitting a few rows behind me at the showing I attended kept muttering, “Jesus,” every time the plot took an especially nasty turn. Not that it was an inappropriate reaction, but she didn’t seem to be having as much fun as I was.

The film’s title refers to a de facto ghetto built on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in the ’60s, a municipal effort to both supply housing for the poor and to keep them, hopefully, out of sight and out of mind. It’s an actual place and the movie is adapted by Braulio Mantovani (from a book by Paulo Lins), a man who grew up there and apparently managed to escape. Its central character and narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young boy trying to avoid the thug life, is based on a real character and many of the events depicted actually happened. All this “actuality” could have made for a more dire film if it had been made in a semidocumentary style or a more poetic-moody one — like Buñuel’s 1950 Los Olvidados or Hector Babanco’s 1981 Pixote, also set in a Rio slum — but director Fernando Meirelles has such a lively, tricked-out style that the main feeling flowing through the film is exhilaration.

This is definitely a director’s film and Meirelles not only shapes the material but determines its tone — and so our response. Like Scorsese, he gives the impression of a pervasive attentiveness, each scene and sequence created in a way to avoid a flat telling while at the same time not allowing the flash to interfere with the story. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the type of writing (Martin Amis comes to mind) where the dead sentence is only written when it’s an unavoidable bridge between more carefully fostered statements.

The film begins with a prologue in the early ’80s before jumping back to the ’60s, then forward to the ’70s and finally back to its starting point. The approach is anecdotal and though the post-prologue stuff is mainly chronological, longish asides are used to fill in the background of the various main characters.

Aside from Rocket, the knowledgeable narrator who spends a lot of his time trying to keep out of harm’s way, the main characters are Li’l Ze (Firmino da Hora), a hair-trigger lunatic who is the scourge of the ghetto; his close and only friend, Benny (Phielipe Haagensen), a more generous soul who tries to temper Li’l Ze’s worst excesses; and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who becomes determined to off Ze after the little tyrant rapes his sister.

Li’l Ze is the film’s Little Caesar, a ruthless entrepreneur out to take over all the local drug trafficking, and we root for Knockout Ned to put a cap in the little psycho’s ass. Our sympathies are also with Rocket, who just might find salvation in his interest in photography, and Benny, who remains human enough to finally grow tired of all the killing.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings are the Runts, a group of pre-teen heist artists and killer wannabees, whose presence signifies the depth of the nihilism in the City of God. It’s some kind of accomplishment — even if one isn’t exactly certain what kind — that Meirelles has taken this potentially depressing material and made it not only tolerable but exciting, harsh and at times sad, but overall a wild ride.


Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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