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Arts&Culture/Real Dealz
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City Of God
by: Edwardo Jackson

MOVIE BIASES: The critical acclaim is deafening.
MAJOR PLAYERS: No one you've ever heard of - they're all Brazilian.

Better late than never, right? Months ago, a producer (who, while sometimes having suspect judgment, isn't prone to hyperbole) told me that this was one of the best films he had ever seen. With it being foreign, independent, and subtitled, a brotha didn't get around to checking it out until now. And that is my bad - this is not only the best film of last year, but the best film I have seen in many years.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro's City of God slums ain't easy. Starting off in Brazil's turbulent '60s, the Tender Trio, a loose gang of ghetto Robin Hoods who brazenly stick up gas trucks in broad daylight, graduate into shadier, more dangerous ventures at the behest of a little kid, bloodthirsty wannabe hoodlum Li'l Dice. Somehow surviving into the transitional '70s, Li'l Dice has grown into the hood rich Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino), king of the City of God's bustling coke trade. Blessed with a gift of crime and saddled with a massive short man-ugly man's complex, Li'l Zé tries to take over the weed trade too, touching off a brutal gang war that embroils the City of God right on into the '80s. Narrating and documenting it all is aspiring photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), Li'l Zé's contemporary, but a fundamentally good guy who seems to be unable to escape the slum's perpetual violence.

This is a movie that is brilliant and amazing in every single way; to single out any production credits would be redundant. I am, however, flabbergasted at the high level of skill demonstrated in the cinematography, editing, lighting, direction, and writing, employing a script so deep and complex, it makes "Mystic River" look like "Cat in the Hat." Based off Paulo Lins' novel, Bráulio Mantovani's screenplay is a complex entanglement of relationships told as a series of coming-of-age vignettes by our would-be hero Rocket, although it is abundantly clear that the charismatically psychotic Li'l Zé, Nino Brown and Hitler's lovechild, is the true protagonist of this movie. If you're not born strapped, you eventually evolve into a gun-toting hood, where eight year old boys espouse inspired crap like this: "I smoke, snort, I've robbed and killed…I'm a man." As insane as this may sound, in a slum caught in a neverending cycle of violence where killing is as natural as breathing and life expectancy is short, that eight year old truly IS a man. Other notable lines: "My heart has chosen you. And I always follow my heart;" "A hood doesn't stop; he only takes a break;" and "The war's on. Let's start with a prayer."

Although entirely in Portuguese and whatever native slang found in Brazil, the performances are effortless. Rodrigues is charmingly appealing as the lanky, pimple-faced, dispassionate narrator, relating the action and the backgrounds behind it as straightforwardly as the truth captured by a camera shutter. Firmino's Li'l Zé is nothing short of inspired, adding a new icon to the pantheon of gangster mafiosos. Already feted for his casual acceptance of murder and buck wild attitude by a Redman hip hop mixtape song, Li'l Zé has an unquenchable thirst to kill matched only by an insatiable quest for power. Firmino has serious, sleepy, yet deadly brown eyes that belie an emotionally stunted character with only one purpose in life, offering up a fascinating performance that is never one note and wholly unpredictable. You can't take your eyes off him for a second or you just might miss his next hotheaded murder.

But the real star is Fernando Meirelles and the world he has created. Newly minted as an Oscar nominated director, Meirelles has an astonishing gift for visual storytelling that might as well be a script in itself, meshing creative shot selection with extraordinarily inventive editing. In Meirelles' City of God - the ultimate oxymoron ("Why remain in a city where God has forgotten you?") - every day is a test of your manhood, where robbery is a way of life and people exist off the twin currencies of weed and cool. In this place the good, young, and handsome die young, a city of no hope and no escape, where drugs, guns, and hustling all start from the crib. I kept thinking that these guys need a hobby, to read a book or something. Yet it speaks volumes for Meirelles' deft and skilled storytelling that despite the shocking, incessant brutality, he finds amazing beauty in violence (like early John Woo) as well as humor, jacking up the film full of retro, throwback flair. His stylish, astounding strobe light club sequence is pure channeling, a talented director announcing his presence with authority.

I am on record among my friends about how much I hate the hot garbage on celluloid that is "Belly," a somewhat championed hip hop gangster flick among black folk. All style and no substance (nor dialogue, acting, plot, etc.), "Belly" isn't even "New Jack City" or "Scarface," yet, in the dearth of anything that speaks for this generation, it has been illegitimately adopted into the community's cultural lexicon. I now propose that City of God rightfully take its place, a shining example of what "Belly" wishes it could be if it had an infusion of, oh, I don't know, TALENT. If there is any justice in the world, "City of God" will be the next, true urban classic.

Please believe that I am not a myopically xenophobic American nor of the mind set that just because something is foreign it is inherently better. But, sometimes, a foreign eye can bring a fresh perspective to celebrated old genres such as the hood flick that have fallen into cultural disarray. Just released on DVD, this is a surefire REEL DEAL Collectible, taking the spot that "Belly" never, ever had. C'mon y'all, it's a no-brainer: "In God we trust."

@@@@ REELS
An urban legend/instant classic.

Like what you read? Agree/disagree with The Reel Deal? Think he's talkin' out his...HUSH YO' MOUF! (I'm only talkin' about The Reel Deal!) Email him at ReelReviewz@aol.com!

Edwardo Jackson is the author of the novels EVER AFTER and NEVA HAFTA, (Villard/Random House), a writer for UrbanFilmPremiere.com, and an LA-based screenwriter. Visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com

© 2004, Edwardo Jackson

© Copyright 2004

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