A few minutes into City of God, the narrator offers (in English-subtitled Portuguese) a pointed description of the sprawling slum outside Rio de Janeiro that gives the film its name: "There was no electricity, paved streets, or transportation. But for the rich and powerful our problems didn't matter." This introduction could easily have marked the beginning of a filmic diatribe about the plight of the poor in Brazil, an earnest work intended to inform but not entertain. Instead it marks the beginning of a glorious exercise in cinematic style. Yes, City of God tells a story about the hopeless, desperate denizens of a drug- and violence-riddled slum. But tells a story, and does so with a narrative panache that owes more to Scorsese or Tarantino than to any well-meaning documentarian.
At its heart, City of God is a gangster film, and a great one: epic in scope, powerful in conception, brilliant in execution. That it is set against a backdrop of Third World poverty and privation is almost secondary; details aside, the film could as easily have been a story about La Cosa Nostra or the Russian mob. Directed by Fernando Meirelles from a book by real-life City of God escapee Paulo Lins, the movie spans three generations of hoodlums--if "generations" is the proper term for boys separated by only a few years, few of whom make it out of their teens alive. The film is narrated by Rocket, a would-be photographer and bystander in the gang wars, but its main character is the Li'l Ze, a psychotic thug who aspires to be the boss of City of God. When we first meet Li'l Ze (then going by the name Li'l Dice) he is a boy with baby fat and dead eyes tagging along on heists with his older brother and two partners in crime, a juvenile gang who call themselves the Tender Trio. The first sign that he is destined for bigger things comes after a brothel robbery gone awry, when he laughingly executes the building's occupants for the sheer joy of it. As a consequence of the crime, the Tender Trio splits up, its members flying toward their individual fates. Flash forward a few years, and the next generation of hoods has come into its own: Li'l Ze--who has lost the baby fat but not the blood lust--his friend Benny, and assorted rivals and hangers-on. The rest of the film follows a series of challenges to Li'l Ze's rule, including a costly war with straight-arrow-turned-gang-boss Knockout Ned and the eventual rise of a still-younger, still-more-desensitized generation of lethal children.
But while the themes of the movie--the inescapability of poverty, the loss of innocence, the endless cycle of violence--are heavy, the direction is anything but. Meirelles is an extraordinarily stylish filmmaker, who employs dizzying camerawork, a raucous soundtrack, split screens, and a considerable dose of dark humor to keep City of God moving at a heady, intoxicating pace. Like Amélie, the film is an exercise in discursive, conversational storytelling in which the introduction of each new character mandates a quick digression into his past or future. (Unlike Amélie, most of these digressions involve killing, dying, or both.) The cast is a marvel: Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund founded an acting school to train kids from the slums of Rio, and the results are remarkable. Nonprofessional actors often convey authenticity but can't really act. Meirelles and Lund's players do both. Of particular note is Leandro Firmino da Hora, whose Li'l Ze is one of the most indelible villains in recent cinema, a short, crooked-toothed kingpin who alternates violently between teenage petulance and teenage bravado.
There are a few moments of true horror in the movie--in particular, an excruciating scene in which Li'l Ze commands a young boy to choose which of two still-younger boys to shoot dead--and many more that capture the tragic nature of the storyline. But despite these outbreaks of moral gravity, City of God remains perhaps the most entertaining film ever made about mindless vengeance and inevitable death. By employing a narrator who is innocent enough to have our empathy but jaded enough to take the accumulation of young bodies in stride, Meirelles brings us fully into the film's moral universe, a Lord of the Flies/High Wind in Jamaica world in which boys do not kill other boys merely because they have to; they do it because it's fun. The film's last scene is of a gang of preteens, the Runts, compiling a list of all the other boys they intend to kill. ("Put fucking Nightowl on there." "And Croquet." "Leonard, too. He owes me money." "And China-Man. He thinks he's hot stuff.") It's a testament to Meirelles's deftness that a joke so grisly can nonetheless be funny.
The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter aptly described City of God as a "joyous film about murder." If this light-handed treatment of its subject matter is in some respects refreshing, it is also deeply discomfiting. A movie in which children kill other children should not be an enjoyable movie. Yet by largely eschewing an outside, moralizing voice--the one we're programmed to recognize in American film when the slow-motion begins and the orchestra rises--City of God ultimately perturbs more deeply. Rather than flatter our sense of decency (our knowledge, for example, that it's wrong to kill someone merely because we're tired of hearing him talk), the film upends it, making us complicit in the joyousness of its many murders. Meirelles has made a film about hopelessness and depravity that is nonetheless a genuine pleasure, in part by leaving it up to the individual conscience to decide whether the pleasure should be a guilty one.
The Home Movies List:
Memorable (but unremembered) kingpins
Harold Shand (The Long Good Friday). Is there any actor alive who plays violence more convincingly, and more harrowingly, than Bob Hoskins? The Long Good Friday is not his best film (see Mona Lisa, below), but it makes best use of his outsized physicality. It's a mystery that Hollywood has found so few worthwhile roles for him. (No, playing the head butler in Maid in Manhattan doesn't count.)
Mortwell (Mona Lisa). A heartbreaking turn by Hoskins is ably supported by perhaps the most underrated performance of Michael Caine's career. In just a handful of scenes, Caine presents a Mortwell of reptilian languor and ferocity. A must-see for anyone trying to forget his treacly hackery in The Cider House Rules.
Teddy Bass (Sexy Beast). With Ben Kingsley sucking all the accolade-oxygen out of the room, no one had much breath left to praise Ian McShane's creepy, understated performance as Kingsley's boss, Teddy Bass. For anyone who was paying attention, it should come as no surprise that McShane has had more than enough villainous charisma to carry HBO's "Deadwood."
Peoples Hernandez (Shaft). The film was a silly, needless remake clearly intended to coast on the innate cool of Samuel L. Jackson in a long leather coat. Apparently no one bothered to tell Jeffrey Wright. His performance as ghetto drug lord Peoples pops off the screen, stealing a movie that doesn't merit the theft.
Nick Valenti (Bullets Over Broadway). Not many people know the name Joe Viterelli, but every moviegoer knows the face--if not from Bullets, then from The Firm or Micky Blue Eyes or Analyze This or any of the two dozen other films in which he's played a character with a name straight out of the Palermo phone book. (One imagines he's not that popular with the Italian-American anti-defamation crowd.) It's a remarkable face: Jowly and pockmarked, with tiny eyes peering out from behind a shapeless nose, it's like something out of preconscious human memory. Or, alternatively, a Halloween pumpkin left on the doorstep past Thanksgiving.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.