From Brazil comes an exhilarating new film, equal parts Tarantino/Guy Richie slickster spectacle, "Once Upon in America" criminal biography, and international up-from-the-gutter drama. Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" is coming for its Foreign Oscar nomination with guns blazing. The style is all dazzle and in-your-face pizzazz, quick titles, cuts, and digressions, split screens and smash zooms, while a remarkably complex story unfolds and the funky soundtrack grooves along.
The movie's heroes, growing up in the Brazilian slum "Cidade de Deus" in the Sixties and Seventies, are a bunch of drug-peddling, gun-totin' hoods hell-bent on revenge -- with the notable exception of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the quiet observer and carrier of our sympathies who would rather aim a camera than a shotgun.
But Rocket's tale is only one of the dozens of stories "City of God" juggles with equal aplomb. From the breakneck opening involving a chicken on the lam, the film throbs with stories and events: two and a half hours fly by fast and bloody. There's Knockout Ned, a quiet ex-soldier who believes that education and honest work will get him and his family out of the slum. There's Benny, the grooviest hood in the City of God, somewhere between Johnny Depp's role in "Blow" and the Simpson's Disco Stu. There's Li'l Ze, a vicious drug kingpin with a frozen heart, the up-and-coming gang of Runts, and the hood with my favorite moniker, Steak'nFries, all locked into a headlong dance of sex, drugs, and violence.
The film's flaw is its blatant disregard for its female characters. While Fernando Meirelles never misses an opportunity to fill us in on the back story of a minor character, there aren't any such digressions for the women and girls. They serve as objects of affection, lovers, mothers, benefactors, accomplices, but after they have languid sex, hide their men from the fuzz, or lose their boyfriends or husbands in yet another senseless gun fight, they disappear without a trace. There's no room for women in the spotlight of Meirelles macho world, and their stories go untold.
Yet, the stories "City of God" does tell are all wildly entertaining, poignant, and intriguing. This is "Snatch" with a heart, Tarantino with a social agenda, and any number of dreary quasi-neo-realist films with a hyped-up sense of drama and excitement. There are more great movie moments here than in a whole multiplex full of vapid Hollywood fare: a crying girl watching her fleeing lover being shot from the back window of a moving car, a little gangster hopeful letting his bloodlust run unchecked for the first time, brothers shot, unfaithful wives murdered, fathers avenged, friends betrayed, children corrupted, in a torrent of surprising reversals and throwaway plotlines that could provide the climaxes for a dozen or so lesser films or a few Shakespeare dramas, all wonderfully cinematic and no less real for it. Mereilles harnesses the hip, accelerated editing pioneered in American Indies to astonishing effect.
Finally, all that dazzle serves a purpose.