Murder as child's play

March 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Even if life is cheap in the City of God housing project outside Rio de Janeiro, it should exact more empathy than it does in City of God, a razzle-dazzle lower-depths melodrama.

The movie's skill is stupefying in more ways than one. As the breakthrough feature from TV-commercial whiz Fernando Meirelles, it's an amazingly ambitious and assured urban spectacle, skipping through decades of gangland mayhem and related catastrophes without missing a narrative beat. As a statement on the debasement of everyday existence, starting with childhood and increasing with each generation, this movie drains you of feeling and puts nothing in its place. When you see assassins in short pants, even outrage seems superfluous.

Positive spin: There's almost too much to take in. Negative spin: Too much of it is under-felt and interchangeable.

The movie is like an amphetaminized compendium of every juvenile-delinquent fable and urban-mob saga ever made. The octopus-like plot comprises absurd killings and sadistic shows of force, cops that shoot straight only when they aim at the wrong guys, vendettas that take on lives of their own and strangle anyone who gets in their way, and periods of peace that rest on one ruthless boss or another consolidating power.

What's new about City of God is the staggering youth of the killers and victims. The movie presents a vision of escalating bloodshed and mob rule in which the street soldiers and kingpins get younger and younger. The cycle of violence rides through the City of God on training wheels.

This flat, sprawling tapestry contains several stabs at characterization: At the center is the dreamy yet wary narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who hopes to become a professional photographer. Then there's the affable, romantic Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), who likes being a gang lord for the status, money and comfort of the position - as opposed to his psychotic partner, Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino de Hora), who likes it because he loves to kill. And there's Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who starts out as a seeker of justice and becomes a warrior legend himself, wreaking collateral damage. But the movie's treatment of them is conventional. You root for Rocket to lift off and leave his past behind; you wait for the past to catch up to the others.

City of God does succeed at mounting social protest within flashbacks that interlock and twirl like coordinated pinwheels. Based on a novel by Paoli Lins that drew on real-life personalities including a photographer named Wilson Rodriguez and the actual Knockout Ned, the movie has been embraced by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as a cry for help. But the picture lacks the emotional pull that Hector Babenco's simpler Pixote had a couple of decades ago or the bracing existential clarity that Walter Hill's comic-book mythology in The Warriors gave to gang fighting a few years before that.

Most of the time, Meirelles' technique simply speeds up and heightens the naturalistic whiz-bang approach of contemporary cop shows. City of God has the ambiance of a sweeps-week episode of a ripped-from-the-headlines TV series.

It's a movie about social and emotional deprivation made with a coarsened sensibility. It registers as the product of a time and place where emotion has already died.

City of God

Starring Alexandre Rodrigues and Seu Jorge

Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Released by Miramax

Time 135 minutes

Rated R

Sun Score **1/2

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