Two little kids, aged five or six, are cornered by some 18 year olds. Asked if they want it in the hand or foot, they begin to grizzle. The gun goes off. One of the kid's feet is blown wide open...
Welcome to City Of God (Cidade De Deus), the boyz-'n'-the-favela drama that elicits hyperbole and superlatives wherever it goes. And rightly so: if 2000's Amores Perros was the Mexican Pulp Fiction, then this is the Brazilian GoodFellas, furiously knitting plot strands together and pinballing between characters as it accelerates through three decades of crime in a poverty-ridden shanty town.
It begins in the late '60s. Rocket (Luis Otávio) and Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva) are two 11 year olds who idolise the hoods of Cidade de Deus, a godforsaken suburb on the edge of Rio de Janeiro. Events then conspire to thrust Rocket and Li'l Dice on separate roads.
The '70s see Rocket (now played by Alexandre Rodrigues) trying to go straight, chasing his dream of becoming a photographer. Li'l Dice, meanwhile, grows into Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), an unpredictable time bomb of a teenager who's killed his way to the top. Surrounded by his childhood mates and served by an army of gun-toting teenagers, Li'l Zé runs a thriving drug trade through virtue of fear. He's unstable. He's uncontrollable. And, most of all, he's untouchable - until one act of particularly brutal violence sparks an all-out turf war.
Whatever you want, City Of God has it. Technique? The camera moves so swiftly it leaves a slipstream. Structure? It's both playful and artful, speeding backwards and forwards within one big circle. Acting? First rate, 200 non-professionals plucked from 2,000 auditioning locals. Tension? It never lets up, a 20-minute club scene so taut it's a wonder the celluloid doesn't snap. Authenticity? Paolo Lins' titular source novel emerged from eight years of interviews. Politics? The police stand by and watch the slaughter, only intervening to collect their pay-offs.
Crucially, Fernando Meirelles' blistering movie also comes laden with emotion. And we don't mean schmaltz. Rocket's voiceover lends heart to his own story, while the volatile Li'l Zé has a touching, unshakeable friendship with likeable right-hand man Benny (Phelipe Haagensen). But there's more. Everywhere you look, you see characters trapped by poverty and violence, teenagers who charge towards death because, for them, it's the only way to go.
As director Meirelles puts it: "In Cidade de Deus, a 16-year-old kid is at the height of his life. He knows that if he is lucky, he'll last another three or four years." This is their incredible story, recorded to ensure their memory will last forever. Now how's that for hyperbole?
Crime, conflict and coke make for an audacious Brazilian drama. You won't see a more technically dazzling, dramatically compelling or emotionally affecting movie this year.
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