UNLIKE MARTIN Scorsese's moribund, muddled Gangs of New York, Fernando Meirelles' City of God (which opens Friday, Jan. 24 at the Harvard Exit) is unburdened by history. Where Scorsese tried to hang the whole story of immigrant America upon some phony urban legends, City is adapted from a 1997 fact-based novel about Rio de Janeiro's most notorious real-life gangsters, written from the inside of the favelas (slums) by someone who knew the killers firsthand from childhood. Instead of musty textbooks, the tale drips with fresh tabloid ink—even though the plot is as old as the movies. You've seen it all before: the vicious hoodlum's rise and inevitable fall.
But, like Scorsese's own Mean Streets, City is born of immediate lived experience and living memory. The film breathes. It's textured to a specific period (the late '60s through the early '80s); the pavement feels hot under your feet and the tropical air moist in your lungs. The colors are lush and always Brazilian, but without resorting to the tonal clich鳠of carnival and travelogue. And the blood, importantly, is always red.
City takes its name from the godforsaken public-housing project where the young hoods begin their lives of crime. The film is narrated by its one sympathetic character, Rocket (played as an adult by Alexandre Rodrigues), a straight-and-narrow kid who wants to be a news photographer. His older brother is a member of a teenage band of petty stickup artists called the Tender Trio, who don't last long. Rocket tells their story—and those of the even younger and more ruthless gangsters who take their place—in diary form, leafing back and forth through time.
Thus, City will arrive at a critical point in the action only to loop back to fill in the back story. In voice-over, Rocket will ask, "Who is this guy pointing a gun at my head?"; then we find out. It's like you keep hitting Post-it notes in a book that say: "Go back to page 12," and there you find another Post-it note sending you ahead again. It makes the straightforward criminal saga continually digressive and entertaining.
THE FILM IS ALSO great looking thanks to Meirelles, a debut director trained in commercials. (Katia Lund, an experienced documentarian of the favelas, receives a lesser co-director credit.) Meirelles turns on the pizzazz with variable-speed camera tricks, split screens, 16 and 35mm film stock converted to digital and back, and by tweaking everything in the postproduction blender. The visual results are flattened and compressed on the screen: When a gunman jumps out of a doorway deep in the frame, he lands in your seat. Meirelles keeps his camera on the ground much of the time, making his preteen killers—who carelessly brandish guns as big as their arms—loom unnaturally large against the sky. (City's frequent flashbacks are also helpfully color-coded ࠬa Traffic.)
Meirelles begins his movie at the end, just before the climactic shoot-out, in a brilliant sequence where a chicken being prepared for dinner makes its frantic, squawking escape from hungry, gun- toting gangsters. The chicken leads them into the path of a rival gang and the cops, where Rocket and his camera are also on hand. (I'm not sure, but in the ensuing hail of gunfire, I think the chicken actually survives.) The effect is like watching a soccer match where the camera is the ball. It's a blur but totally intoxicating.
ALTHOUGH THE LOOK and feel of City are indebted to recent Mexican imports like Amores Perros and Y Tu Mam᠔ambi鮼/I>, this is a less ambitious, more conventional film. Unlike MamἯI>, which surveys the breadth of Mexico's social strata (albeit through the eyes of a pair of stoners), City stays firmly at ground level, or below. When Rocket narrates the chaos and carnage, his terms are simple and direct. Think of poor Leo in Gangs, forced to intone, "This is the melting pot in which America was forged," or whatever weighty blather Scorsese's team of screenwriters forced upon him. By contrast, Rocket's voice-overs are clear and functional. "I didn't want to get killed," he'll say. Or, "This is the story of Knockout Ned."
The sprawling City has just as many characters as the sprawling Gangs, but you always understand who they are and what they're doing. (Can anyone explain that woman with filed- down teeth in Gangs?) City's characters, played mainly by nonprofessionals, don't have much depth, but they're motivated by simple things—money, coke, status, clothes, and sex, but mainly it's revenge, revenge, revenge.
You get the politics without the soapbox; the class and race aspects are just a given. The cops are all corrupt. White Rio society doesn't want to be bothered with the Wild West favelas, where crime is a way of life among illiterate children with easy access to Uzis. It's a bleak situation, but it's also Rocket's future career when he finally lands his newspaper job. City makes clear that there will be plenty of work ahead for him, a combat photographer living in a war zone.