If you were entranced by the grittily gaudy style of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Amores Perros” a couple of years back, you’ll probably find Brazilian Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” equally compelling. The style is of a similarly whiplash variety; Meirelles, working hand-in-glove with cinematographer Cesar Charlone (and presumably aided by co-director Katia Lund), exults in every virtuoso flourish in a helmer’s playbook–sudden zoom shots, lightning-fast camera pans, overlaps, sudden freeze frames, abrupt cuts, slow motion moments, ultra-artsy dissolves–anything that will keep the viewer’s adrenaline rush going for more than two hours.
The visual ostentation isn’t a mere affectation, though. The pizzazz is designed as a counterpart to the crazed, reckless conduct of its subjects–the throwaway kids of the Rio slums drawn almost irresistibly into a life of crime and violence. The narrative, adapted from Paulo Lins’s novel, which in turn was based on actual events and people, spans a couple of decades in telling the stories of two childhood acquaintances: Ze Pequeno, or L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino de Hora), formerly known as Little Dice (Douglas Silva), a cagey, brutal tyke who mercilessly and methodically works his way to gang leadership, and Buscape, or Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a quiet, unassuming boy who aims at becoming a photographer. Surrounding these central characters scripter Braulio Mantovani and Meirelles arrange a small army of secondary figures, including Ze’s even-tempered, fashion-conscious buddy Bene (Phelipe Haagensen), a prizefighter named Manu Galinha, or Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who becomes Ze’s bitterest opponent, and Sandro, or Carrott (Matheus Nachtergaele), a rival drug-dealer–to name but a few. If you imagine all the various characters introduced in the “Godfather” movies compressed into a single two-hour span, you’ll get some idea of the plethora of individuals included here; to insure that various plot resolutions are reasonably clear, the makers even resort to flashbacks at key moments to remind us of whom we’re seeing now (usually in a death pose) and why we should try to care.
The fact that they have to employ such tactics points to the picture’s central flaw: the canvas is so large that it’s difficult to keep the various characters in focus, let alone develop an emotional connection with them. Even the two major figures aren’t deeply developed. L’il Ze remains a one-note thug (he’s actually more intriguing as a murderous urchin), and Rocket a remote observer, too passive to become heroic. Bene is more eye-catching, simply by reason of his penchant for gaudy dress and hairdos and his more engaging personality, but one never gets to know him very well, either; and Ned is too peripheral a figure to hold one’s attention for long. (Significantly, women play a very minor role in the narrative; there’s a beautiful girl that Bene gets seriously involved with, and another who’s raped and killed by Ze, leading to Ned’s enmity, but that’s about it.)
But if “City of God” lacks truly rich characters, it certainly has filmmaking energy and atmosphere to burn. It fills the eye even as it fails to touch the heart. It’s certainly technically accomplished, and if a viscerally exciting but emotionally cool portrait of South American street gangs–with a suitably dispiriting ending–is sufficient for you, it will certainly satisfy. Otherwise, you may feel that the picture suffers from an excess of surface style and a comparative lack of underlying substance.