The irony of City Of God's title runs as thick as the blood that stains the streets of its Brazilian slum. Set over two decades in Rio De Janeiro's largely black Cidade De Deus district, the film depicts a city that resembles heaven about as closely as a Bosch painting. Co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund—whose combined past work includes music videos, commercials, and documentaries, and whose style bears traces of each—the film boils down a mammoth novel by Paulo Lins, a former Cidade resident (although escapee might be a better term). "If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you, too," teen protagonist and Lins surrogate Alexandre Rodrigues says early on, referring to the gangs who run their area of the city like an occupying army. The film opens in the early '80s, with Rodrigues literally caught in the crossfire of a turf war. He then flashes back to what brought him there, beginning with the early days of the Cidade in the 1960s, a more innocent time mostly because the hardware allowed for less killing. What follows shoehorns dozens of characters and almost as many subplots into a film that's partly a nauseous criminal thrill-ride in the Goodfellas mode, partly a history of urban decay, and seldom less than startling. Truck stick-ups lead to brothel hold-ups that lead to murder that leads to coke dealing that leads to street brawls with armies of gun-toting 11-year-olds. Eventually, it settles into a convincing vision of what life might look like after an apocalypse, or would if the film didn't come so firmly rooted in the facts of real life that it's prompted a policy reassessment on the part of Brazil's government. (The state of Cidade and its neighbors apparently hasn't improved much since the time portrayed in the film.) Meirelles and Lund direct with split-second assurance, pausing one moment to tease the significance from a tiny detail, confidently pushing the story ahead the next. But their stylistic bravado works in concert with the grit of the world they portray, as well as the disarming performances of a cast made up mostly of non-professional actors drawn from the same world. The environment makes boys who are too young to shave dream of dealing drugs and smiting enemies, but the film finds a surprising amount of tenderness and humor beneath the brutality. The laughs may catch in the throat, but that's only a byproduct of City Of God's power to leave viewers breathless.
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