At the beginning of the explosive Brazilian movie "City of God," a knife is scraped and sharpened and chickens are slaughtered in preparation for a feast. One symbolic chicken escapes and dodges gunfire as it runs frantically through the mean streets of Cidade de Deus, a "favela," or shantytown slum, in the hilly outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
But it's almost impossible to escape the cycle of poverty and violence endemic to Cidade de Deus, a place where vicious drug gangs rule the roost and human life is valued less than a bird's. Animals, after all, can be eaten. People are expendable.
"City of God" hurtles us into this hellish housing project, where 8-year-old boys carry guns, blood is shed daily and nobody expects to live beyond his teens. It's a grim, harrowing film -- as it should be -- but the violence is less disturbing than the way in which it's depicted.
Director Fernando Meirelles' background is in TV commercials, and there are times when his jazzy technique turns "City of God" into something of a commercial itself. Reaching frequently into his cinematic bag of tricks -- split screens, freeze frames, jump cuts, time-lapse photography, kinetic hand-held cameras, flashy editing and much more -- Meirelles has made an exhilarating movie that might be too entertaining for its own good.
Meirelles walks a fine line between unflinchingly exposing and romantically exploiting the horrific brutality of the slums. The nonstop savagery largely fails to achieve any real emotional impact because we're too busy marveling at the cool camera angles and thrilling filmmaking verve while grooving on the propulsive funk-soul soundtrack. We're excited when we should be recoiling. And by the bloody shootout at the end, the violence has become numbing, which may be Meirelles' point.
Still, "City of God" is too potent, electrifying and skillfully made to dismiss. And it has authenticity in its favor. The screenplay, by Braulio Mantovani, is based on a 700-page novel by Paulo Lins, who spent eight years researching Rio's slums.
Meirelles, working with documentary filmmaker Katia Lund, turned to those slums to assemble his large ensemble cast, and the nonprofessional actors lend the movie a vivid, intimate immediacy.
The episodic film moves back and forth as it charts how Cidade de Deus, a housing project born in the 1960s, deteriorates into a war zone by the onset of the '80s. In the early years, the drug of choice is marijuana, and the violence, while not infrequent, is not pervasive. The police even stop by occasionally in a largely futile attempt to control the escalating chaos.
A decade later, gangs have organized around the lucrative cocaine trade, death and destruction are seemingly everyday occurrences and the police don't dare step foot into this lawless land. Rival drug kingpins emerge -- Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a remorseless monster who takes great enjoyment in casual killing, and Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), who isn't as feared or psychotic as Li'l Ze but who's determined to use his gang's prodigious firepower to take over his rival's turf.
The heart of the movie belongs to Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), one of the few kids who seems to have a conscience. The story is told from his perspective -- we watch him grow up, and he narrates intermittently. An aspiring photographer, Rocket has somehow managed to mostly avoid criminal activity and stay out of the way of the gangs. The fact that he's meant to be the film's moral center is problematic, because he's a passive character and he's often on the periphery.
Many things about "City of God" are problematic, but to its credit, it doesn't judge its characters and it is uncompromising in its lack of sentimentality. Director Meirelles -- who has obviously been influenced by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, John Woo and others -- has crafted a raw, bleak, vibrant movie that's simultaneously gritty and deceptively slick. It doesn't attain the insight and resonance of Hector Babenco's "Pixote" or Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados," which it resembles in subject matter, but it does pack a considerable punch.