Opens Fri Feb 7
My roommate says that seeing certain films is like eating a good meal. Great films seek out deeply hidden hungers you never knew you had. I never understood what he meant until recently when I saw City of God, an endlessly long and mesmerizing film that sat in my gut like good steak. Little did I know I had such a hunger for Brazilian gangster epics.
City of God chronicles gang warfare in one of the most impoverished and depraved slums in Rio de Janeiro. It revolves around a young man named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) as he struggles to get high, get laid, and finally get a real job in photography so he can get out of the slums. He narrates the film in a dazed, almost aloof tone as waves of drugs, guns, and murder swirl around him.
Rocket informs us that the gang activity in his town is more than just a way of life; it's a career path. Little boys make deliveries for the drug lords, then move up to full-on drug dealers, and if they work really hard, they become managers. Violent criminal behavior is ingrained into them from day one, and so it is only a matter of years before they start killing people without a second thought.
One of these kids is the terribly sociopathic Li'l Zé, who as a small boy joins his older brother's gang in robbing a hotel. Annoyed at being made to stand guard as opposed to participating, Li'l Zé scares off the older boys by shooting his gun from outside, then saunters through the hotel, shooting and killing employees and customers with unabashed glee. The ease with which this tot kills is terrifying, but even scarier is the fearlessness he has of getting caught doing it. There is nobody to stop him from doing whatever he wants, and he knows it. Eventually, he grows up and runs the neighborhood with an iron hand, massacring anyone who crosses him--even small children.
Naturally, stories like Li'l Zé's (and his is only one of many) make City of God hard to watch, and yet I was scared to tear my eyes away from the screen for one second, for fear I would miss something incredible. Director Fernando Meirelles isn't just telling a story about gangsters here; he's telling stories about love and hate and fear and loneliness in the heart of a darkly beautiful, terrifying town. His camera is a predator, always moving, hunting for every last detail of every place and person in the world around it. The constant motion isn't nauseating, but satisfying. Lush mounds of twisting story lines and visual treats pile up, your eyes greedily devouring them like candy, but never seeming to quite get full.