- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

The dedication and effort that went into the Brazilian import, "City of God," command respect more respect than the relentless, prodigiously violent chronicle of juvenile delinquency and social savagery that director Fernando Meirelles has extracted from a sprawling topical novel by Paulo Lins.
The film involved an extended process of auditions for the nonprofessionals cast as adolescent thugs and their cronies. Evidently, the author's fictional equivalent is the character called Rocket. His attraction to photography gives him an exit route from the gang culture of a squalid, lawless slum outside Rio de Janiero called Cidade de Deus. Gang control there is so entrenched that the filmmakers could not even shoot there and had to enact the script in other parts of the city.
The scenario begins with a framing sequence set in the 1980s, when Rocket, an apprentice news photographer, seems to find himself between a rock and a hard place as heavily armed gang members and police officers confront each other on the street.
This older Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, is shelved for a while during flashbacks that recall him as a child during the early years of Cidade de Deus in the 1960s. Now portrayed by Luis Otavio, he seems to have stern and decent parents, but for movie purposes their influence is easily overshadowed by the gang culture, which has claimed his older brother, Goose (Renato de Souza). Part of a three-member set known as the Tender Trio, Goose thrives on hijacking gas trucks and poaching stray wives, a hobby that leads to one of the movie's recurrent outbursts of retribution and homicide.
The hopeful alternatives suggested by Rocket are contradicted at their most extreme by a runt called Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva). This precocious killer is destined to "mature" into the youthful tyrant Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), whose foul temper and appetite for carnage remain unrivaled. Although he seems an inviting target for reprisals from either competitors or underlings, Li'l Ze enjoys a wretched sort of charmed life until the finale, which retrieves the initial time frame and envisions no end in sight for a tradition of Li'l Ze's.
Every generation or so a South American filmmaker seems impelled to update the subject of juvenile crime in a flamboyant fashion. Brazilian directors have been the more recent style-setters: Hector Babenco's "Pixote" in 1981 was the most conspicuous example before "City of God." Both overreach in ways that enlarge one's esteem for a vintage, hard-eyed prototype, Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" (1950), which sustained a compelling intimacy with a pair of doomed child felons, called Pedro and Jaibo, in Mexico City.
Rocket and Dice are the self-evident contrasts in "City of God," but they aren't personally close in ways that enhance a dramatic line of development, as Pedro and Jaibo were for Bunuel.
If anything, the Rio lads reinforce a feeling of estrangement, at least from a perspective that's far removed from the social immediacy and pathology of the city: Rocket is a spectator in the making and Dice a monster in the making. Mr. Meirelles fails to secure long-term advantages from his genuinely youthful players and authentic Rio locales. He becomes too dependent on recurrent shootouts and bloodbaths to modulate toward coherence.
Spectators who anticipate an explosive guilt trip may not mind the stupefying costs of so much stylized frenzy and brutality, but the movie relies on vicious spectacle at the expense of social perspective and character insight. It becomes a monotonous ordeal long before it ends. One of the boys says, "The guys here are all cool." He has it all wrong.

*1/2
TITLE: "City of God"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity and graphic violence against a backdrop of urban squalor; fleeting nudity and occasional sexual candor; simulations of drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Co-directed by Katia Lund. Screenplay by Braulio Mantovani, based on a novel by Paulo Lins. In Portuguese with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

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