Divinity is nowhere in sight in City of God, a jauntily brutal documentary-style drama by Brazilian TV and commercial director Fernando Meirelles. The movie takes its name from a housing project outside Rio de Janeiro so dangerous that the devil might think twice about visiting. Built in the 1960s in one of the favelas — shantytowns — that don’t appear in tourist brochures, Cidade de Deus was always roiling with the restlessness of poverty. But beginning in the 1970s, gang rule and drug dealing, enforced by gun-waving kids and teenagers, turned the area into a subdivision of hell.
”City of God” moves in where even cops fear to tread, embracing the mess, misery, and violence with a matter-of-factness at once riveting and disconcertingly MTV-cool. As in Paulo Lins’ novel, on which it’s based, the central character and narrator in Bráulio Mantovani’s ”GoodFellas”-tough screenplay is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), straight from the projects. The younger brother of one of the area’s ’60s gang leaders (many of whom have flannel-pajama-soft nicknames like Stringy, Shaggy, Melonhead, Goose, or Carrot), Rocket observes the action rather than participates in it — but the action unfolds around him plentifully, 24/7. (Lins grew up to become a writer; a kind of alter ego, Rocket grows up to become a news photographer.)
Rocket is a boy in the relatively ”innocent” ’60s, when gang activity is restricted to simple stuff like holding up truck drivers and robbing hotel patrons. He’s a teenager in the 1970s, when an uncontainably ambitious and psychotically cold-blooded gang ruler who calls himself Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) makes the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro his own. And Rocket is a young man experimenting with a camera in the 1980s when a bus driver and amateur boxer, who calls himself Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), vows revenge on Li’l Zé for raping his girlfriend, setting in motion a murderous civil war among gangs.
Shot (with drug-lord permission) in the thick of the favela, ”City of God” pulses with atmosphere and vibrates with authenticity: Nearly all the young actors who make up the gangs are kids from Brazil’s ‘hoods of hoods, with whom the filmmaker and his production team worked in improvisation exercises, and there’s a horrifying thrill to the way small boys, actors or not, handle weapons and talk of killing. (In a singularly sickening scene, an anguished kid with a gun plays an anguished kid with a gun inaugurated into gang killing culture, and it’s impossible to distinguish artifice from reality.) But there’s also an unnerving whiff of sexy grooviness and gangsta-wise equanimity coming off the imagery and filmmaking, with its kinetic moonwalks between eras, its palette of deep crimsons, and its seductive soundtrack.
Undeniably powerful (and a strong contender for an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film), the work also comes with its own built-in shield against feeling any one character’s difficulties too deeply, or for too long. In Meirelles’ naked ”City,” a hundred stories are told as one.