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City Of God

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: City Of God

Starring: Matheus Nachtergaele, Leandro Firmino da Hora
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: R
RunTime: 130 Minutes
Release Date: January 2003
Genres: Action, Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Seu Jorge, Jonathan Haagensen, Phelipe Haagensen

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

What does it cost for a New Yorker to go to Rio on vacation, air fare, decent hotel, modest meals? $800? $1200? $2000? More or less this is so. You'd think that anyone who already lives in that Portuguese-speaking paradise would be excited about his geographical luck, with quite a saving of air fare and tourist taxes and the like. Yes, the people in Fernando Meirelles's "City of God" are excited: thrilled to DEATH in fact, because the hormone- filled, drug-riddled youth, ages six to eighteen, are living in what almost amounts to being in an independent country. The ghetto, called City of God either as the most ironic name even given to a nabe or a statement about the Deity's Old-Testament vengeful nature, is poverty stricken. There is little evidence in the City of God of the tar-paper shacks you find all over the Third World (including some just over the border from the San Diego Yacht Club in Tijuana, Mexico). Yet there is little motivation for many of the young people to study hard, to go to school, even to learn how to write. Some are homeless and all seem to be without parental guidance. What drives these kids into the gangs is just partly for the money because many are in low-level positions waiting years to rise in the "corporation." The joy of pure violence, of killing with impunity, seems to drive them. One kid sums it all up: "What do you mean, I'm a kid? I kill, I rob, I'm a man!"

"City of God," which is Brazil's official entry for the Oscar competition in 2002 (though it will open in selected U.S. cities in January '03), would probably be the most violent picture shown in The Big Apple this year were it not for the bloodletting that informs the first hour of "Gangs of New York" (also a Miramax production).

While the script comes from a six hundred page door-stopping novel by Paulo Lins, much appears to be improvised, with the mostly non-professional talent (chosen from among 800 kids in the favela, or slum) having a grand time performing before cinematographer Cesar Charlone's lenses and then obviously edited well by Daniel Rezende who uses a non-linear approach for the most part while dividing the one hundred stories in the novel into decades rather than characters. Opening in the 1960's the film focuses on two kids, one who turns out to be a born criminal named L'Il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) while one, probably too frail to become a real gangster, goes the other way. Rocket, the nicest kid in the movie and presumably the novelist's alter ego, loves photography but cannot afford a camera. Through a series of altercations culminating in total warfare between two rival drug gangs, one led by L'il Ze and one by the slightly less violent Carrot (Matheus Nachtegaele)--Rocket acquires a camera and works his way up until he gets a professional piece of work and a job interning with a major Rio newspaper.

Meirelles takes up into the seventies and eighties, looking into the society that is ruled by drug lords and not by the town council or community board, in what must have been a scary 56 days of photography (especially when one young man pointed a gun at his head, a guy who was not in the script). By the conclusion Meirelles shows us that a true story can be as brutal as "Pulp Fiction," with characters whose adorable faces belie their remorseless pattern of murder. They kill innocents, they kill their rivals. Makes no difference. Leandro Firmino da Hora stands out as a fellow you don't want to be caught in a dark favela with.

When Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein heard that the picture was turned down by the New York Film Festival, he was (according to The New Yorker magazine of 12/16/02 "much less stoic.." "You're kidding," Weinstein said. "This is one of the best films we ever made. It's in Portuguese. They're morons." Point well taken.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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