April 3, 2003

Heavenly City

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City of God is a tremendous accomplishment on many levels. Deftly scripted, sharply acted, and brilliantly directed, this film from the Brazilian directing duo Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles ranges from the depths of pathos to heights of hilarity. On every level the film is a fully realized gem.

The movie opens with haphazard and rapidly cut shots of preparations for a feast among the gun toting of youths of the Cidade de Deus — a decaying housing project near Rio de Janerio, ruled by roving bands of hoods and drug dealers. The shock of seeing children barely old enough to walk hunting a rogue chicken with hand guns blazing never truly fades as the film unfolds, but it becomes a common sight. This miserable sprawl is the home of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), and here begins his chatty, rambling narration with a flashback to the beginning of three extended vignettes.

Paulo Lins, a former resident of Cidade de Deus who wrote the novel from which Braulio Mantovani adapted the screenplay, weaves a story that fluidly and skillfully shifts through time. The vignettes unfold in chronological order, punctuated by frequent digressions back in time that give us the history of a person or place. Occasionally multiple histories run side-by-side from the same perspective.

The story begins with Rocket’s older brother and his two friends who are small-time hoods in the City of God. Their story is primarily a platform for the development of a hood Rocket’s own age, Li’l Ze (Douglas Silva), whose bloody rise to power is chronicled by the second portion of the movie. The third section portrays the chaos the city collapses into when rival drug dealers go to all-out war with Ze. Here we see some of the most shocking moments in the film, as one child after another enlists on either side of the war to exact bloody revenge for petty grievances.

The acting in City of God is impossible to fully judge without a fluent understanding of Spanish, but certainly the range of emotions powerfully captured by the cast is evident no matter what language you speak. Rodrigues is clearly a competent and confident leading man, but Silva steals the show as the monstrous Ze. His talent allows us to even sympathize with this butcher when he strikes out with women.

His rejection precedes a discoth