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Movie review, 'City of God'

A knife flashes as it scrapes rhythmically against a sharpening stone, a doomed chicken clucks, samba bongos fill the air, and Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" is off with a rush. Soon 30 or so gangsters, aged 8 to 28, are chasing the escaped chicken down the unpaved streets of their pre-fabricated slum outside Rio de Janeiro, firing guns and causing general havoc, all while Meirelles keeps cutting back to the frantic chicken's point of view with fast-moving, ground-level tracking shots.

It's an exhilarating, funny, unsettling opening. You're immediately swept up by the energy of the filmmaking, but there's something horrific about the sight of those kids with guns. As flashy and exciting as Meirelles' directorial debut is, it never treats its subjects' lives like pulp fiction. The violence is never meant to amuse; it feels all too real.

At the same time, "City of God" is not one of those grim exposes intended to make you feel pity for everyone on screen. The movie's title is the name of an actual favela, Cidade de Deus, a rural slum created in the 1960s to get the poor and homeless off the streets of Rio. Conditions are shabby -- the government hasn't bothered to provide running water or electricity -- but the place is teeming with life.

The kids there apply their abundant energy to playing soccer and doing what they think will improve their condition. What they see in the City of God is similar to what many urban ghetto kids in the United States have seen -- that the fastest way to riches is through robbery and drug dealing.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins (though said to be based on a true story), "City of God" tracks a multitude of vivid characters from the mid-'60s, before the drug trade dominated the favela, to the cocaine-fueled early '80s. Its hero is a relative innocent named Rocket (Luis Otavio as a kid, Alexandre Rodrigues as an adult), whose older brother Goose (Renato de Souza) is part of a trio of robbers who lay the groundwork for a younger, more ruthless group of thugs.

Rocket never gets a taste for crime, in part because even when he considers robbing people, he winds up liking them too much to rip them off. His natural mode is in the role of observer -- though he'd prefer otherwise in regards to his crush on the warm, sultry Angelica (Alice Braga) -- and he discovers that his passion lies in photography.

Rocket's observational powers also are called upon to tell the story -- or, really, stories --in voiceover. Meirelles and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani structure "City of God" as a series of tales that jump around in time a la "Pulp Fiction" or "Amores Perros," though the jumbled chronology isn't for show but rather to serve a narration that takes frequent detours to keep the viewers aware of each person's importance in the overall scheme.

Only when the movie is over do you realize just how many distinct characters you've encountered, each one fully lived-in, even as most are played by non-actors. The dominant force is a young psychopath, named Li'l Dice as a kid (Douglas Silva) and redubbed Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) when he becomes the drug lord who rules the City of God in the '70s.

Li'l Dice/Ze is one of the scariest criminals depicted on screen in recent memory. He's clearly deranged, driven as a kid to outdo the older hoods by masterminding a motel robbery and taking a frightening amount of glee from gunning down innocents in one of the disturbing scenes of children as murderers.

Yet even as Li'l Ze grows only more vicious and amoral as an adult, the movie never depicts him as a simple monster. Played impressively by newcomer da Hora with a full afro and crooked teeth, Li'l Ze is someone who, as his bigger-hearted sidekick Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) tells him, needs a girlfriend. Li'l Ze's single-minded rage and quest for power have left no room for tenderness, but there's an awareness of what he's missing, which leads to more rage.

Benny is another especially well-drawn character, a guy who has chosen to remain at the side of Li'l Ze but enjoys being liked by everyone. The caramel-skinned Benny bleaches his curly locks, and when he chases after the white, privileged, coke-addicted Thiago (Daniel Zettel), it turns out Benny just wants him to pick up some preppy designer clothes. With Benny's "farewell party," Meirelles provides a brilliant cultural snapshot of the mid-'70s, as the soul, samba and "groovy" crowds come together to party on the favela streets.

Other key players include Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele, a celebrated Brazilian actor), Li'l Ze's drug-dealing rival who's pushed into a bloody turf war, and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge, the other pro in the cast), whose girlfriend's rape leads him down a slippery slope from heroic revenge-seeker to another contributor to the culture of violence.

"City of God" is a fiercely moral movie but not a moralistic one. It immerses you in its world and makes its political points simply by showing you how people live. Meirelles keeps the social realism in constant service of the story rather than the other way around.

The movie includes its share of distressing scenes, none more so than one involving the execution of one of the "Runts," the youngest thieves in the 'hood. But the violence never feels exploitative; the only thrill you feel is that of being in the hands of a masterful storyteller opening your eyes to a world that you feel truly exists. (The movie has been a hit in Brazil, where it has sparked debate about conditions in the favelas.)

A visual and aural feast that combines elements of classic gangster melodramas, crime epics such as "The Godfather" and playful non-linear narratives such as "Amores Perros," "City of God" explores a deadly culture while feeling more alive than anything that's hit the big screen in years. If Miramax had released "City of God" in 2002, it would have topped my year-end list. As it is, this instant classic sets the bar high for 2003.

4 stars (out of 4) "City of God"

Directed by Fernando Meirelles; written by Braulio Mantovani; based on the novel by Paulo Lins; photographed by Cesar Charlone; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Antonio Pinto, Ed Cortes; produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Jan. 24. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: R (strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug content, language).
Rocket -- Alexandre Rodrigues
Li'l Ze -- Leandro Firmino da Hora
Carrot -- Matheus Nachtergaele
Knockout Ned -- Seu Jorge
Benny -- Phellipe Haagensen Shaggy -- Jonathan Haagensen

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

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