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.
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
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
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
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.