In the quick-cut opening sequence of City of God, the sounds of congas, gunshots, and knives being sharpened combine into a jauntily ominous overture. Watching the blades flash, a chicken comprehends her imminent fate and makes a frantic break for freedom. She gets away. But almost no one else in this Brazilian slumland epic does.
As it gallops through two decades, City of God leaves a gory wake, handguns and rifles matching the flamboyant camerawork nearly shot for shot. In another context, such excess would flirt with comedy, and director Fernando Meirelles, a veteran of TV dramas and commercials, does acknowledge the grim absurdities of his saga. But his pirouetting masterwork is set in one of the most notorious favelas in Rio de Janeiro, where the laws of both humanity and verisimilitude are apparently suspended. The filmmaker’s challenge was not to restrain himself, but rather to intensify his exuberant style until it approached the ferocity of urban Brazil.
The movie is adapted from a 1997 novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the housing project that gave the book its title—Cidade de Deus in Portuguese—and based his characters on real people. The actual counterparts of some of the major characters appear onscreen during the final credits—in one case, making a comment that his fictional equivalent has already uttered. Yet City of God is not fettered by its story’s real-life origins. Meirelles and his collaborators—notably co-director Katia Lund, writer Braulio Mantovani, cinematographer Cesar Charlone, and editor Daniel Rezende—dance freely around the events, flashing forward and back, choreographing 360-degree pans, and observing from vantage points that are variously street-level and celestial, intimate and detached.
The introductory sequence ends by swiveling all the way around aspiring photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and then spiraling back to the ’60s, when the City of God was new, a treeless instant slum on what was then the outskirts of Rio. The younger Rocket (Luis Otavio) is just an 11-year-old observer of the tale’s first chapter, in which the Tender Trio, a local stickup gang that includes his older brother, attempts a score. Setting out to rob a nearby motel/brothel, the threesome makes the mistake of including preteen thug Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva). A precocious sociopath, Li’l Dice indirectly destroys the Tender Trio while dreaming of a future as Rio’s crime boss. Soon, Rocket also chooses a career path, in emulation of a crime photographer who arrives to document the trio’s end.
Cut to the ’70s, and Rocket is one of a gang of easygoing late-teenage layabouts who hang out on Rio’s beaches. To please the girl of his dreams, Angelica (Alice Braga), Rocket heads to the City to buy a joint. He’s in a dealer’s apartment when a cocky thug arrives to expropriate the operation. It’s Li’l Dice, now calling himself Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and more dangerous than ever. Li’l Ze and his gentler friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) consolidate the local pot and cocaine business, until only Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) stands in their way. Then Li’l Ze assaults the girlfriend of Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), an affable, charismatic bus conductor who’s a military veteran. Seeking revenge, Ned allies with Carrot, and all-out war erupts in the City of God. Trapped in the middle with a camera, Rocket ends up taking photographs that a local newspaper is happy to publish.
That synopsis barely introduces City of God’s richly detailed narrative, which manages to keep track of dozens of characters, and it doesn’t begin to suggest the breadth of the film’s technique. Meirelles’ approach is brash and unapologetically intrusive with its use of strobes, whip pans, handheld cameras, time-spanning dissolves, and digital-editing tricks; in one scene, a rampaging gang army advances in spurts, as if the director were toying with the fast-forward button. Borrowing a battle-scene tactic from Akira Kurosawa, Meirelles shot with several cameras at once, providing multiple vantage points for fast-paced montages. The 35 mm and 16 mm footage was then converted to video so the colors could be manipulated: dusty tan and sunstruck yellow for the ’60s, brighter but more artificial reds and greens for the ’70s, and cold, bluish tones for the final conflict.
If such hi-tech gimmickry suggests The Matrix or even Attack of the Clones, City of God is equally notable for its sense of authenticity. Although actually taking a camera crew into the City of God was impossible, the film was shot on location in similar neighborhoods, with a cast of multihued favela kids that included only one professional actor (Nachtergaele). Like such near-documentary realists as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Meirelles and Mantovani worked up backstories and characterizations in concert with their young players, incorporating much of their improvised dialogue (and gang-war tips) into the final script. The result is as grounded as it is frisky—there’s nothing digitized about the film’s palpable aura of poverty, filth, and aimless rage.
A worthy successor to such Brazilian lost-generation dispatches as Pixote and How Angels Are Born, City of God doesn’t merely blow away the most obvious competitor, Gangs of New York. It also offers a tutorial in narrative structure to films such as The Hours and shows Adaptation scripter Charlie Kaufman that self-consciousness doesn’t have to curdle into self-regard. Ironically, the film—a likely Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee—is being released by Miramax, which last year shelved City of God co-producer Walter Salles’ Behind the Sun, a powerful tale of a Brazilian feud set some 60 years earlier. Salles’ film deserves better, but if Miramax executives believe American audiences can handle only one Brazilian film a year, they picked the right one. City of God is a knockout.
If City of God is an astonishing entertainment that demands to be taken seriously, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto is an equally sensational diversion that cannot be given any credence whatsoever. Turning as it does on the notion that good fortune is something that can be traded, hoarded, and even pilfered, this Spanish thriller is fundamentally ridiculous and even tasteless. Indeed, the man with all the luck is Samuel Berg (Max von Sydow), often called simply “the Jew,” whose Nazi-death-camp-survivor karma guarantees that he will defeat anyone who travels to his Canary Islands casino to challenge him to a round of extreme Russian roulette (five bullets, one empty chamber).
Trivializing the Holocaust is a suitably impudent beginning for Fresnadillo’s first feature, which he co-wrote with Andres M. Koppel. Accept Intacto’s outlandish premise, however, and the film’s sinister demimonde seems almost credible. The story begins when Berg expels underling Federico (Eusebio Poncela) from the casino, stripping him of his own extraordinary luck in the process. Federico becomes a sort of agent, charged with locating the unusually fortunate and introducing them to an underworld in which competitors take outrageous bets and test their luck against others. Eventually, he finds Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a thief who’s just experienced a harrowing demonstration of his gift: He’s the only survivor of an airliner crash, the “intact” protagonists of Fearless and Unbreakable rolled into one. Federico recruits Tomas and leads him through a series of wagers with outrageous stakes and increasingly risky challenges. Tomas doesn’t understand the quest he’s begun, but Federico is grooming him to challenge Berg.
The last’s horrific childhood, it turns out, is not merely the worst ordeal that the filmmakers can imagine a fortunate man surviving. In fact, Berg is different from Tomas only in degree: All lucky people must carry the sorrow of having outlived the less blessed. Tomas is pursued by Sara (Monica Lopez), a cop tormented by the fact that she wasn’t killed in the car wreck that claimed her husband and daughter. There’s only so much good fortune to be had, and those who have more than their share must suffer, either from watching others perish or from pushing them away, as Tomas does with the girlfriend whose life he saved by dumping her—and must save again when her photo, a repository of her fate, falls into the hands of luck merchants.
If Intacto’s worldview ultimately seems medieval, its events are electrifyingly immediate. In one diabolical contest, blindfolded destiny-tempters rush through a forest, hoping to be the one who doesn’t smash his or her face into a tree. The film’s metaphysical foundation doesn’t quite survive a fairly conventional resolution, but it’s still very effective. With this debut, Fresnadillo joins Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) and Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Others) as one of the new Hispanic masters of the elegant creep show.
In deference to American moviegoers who consider subtitles an insult to their lack of intelligence, both City of God and Intacto will get only limited local releases—but they’re both smarter, sharper, and more entertaining than any Hollywood flick in town this week. CP