According to industry scuttlebut, the Brazilian-made "City of God" lost its chances for an Oscar nod when several members of its nominating committee got up and walked out of a screening in disapproval. Some say the staid Academy crowd was put off by the film's youthful hyperactivity; others point to its unflinching depiction of child-on-child violence. But neither of those considerations should stop you from forging your own personal relationship with "God," one of those rare moviegoing experiences that simply flattens you with greatness from the word go.
Set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, director Fernando Meirelles' kinetic ensemble drama follows the fates of several children whose poverty-ridden environment is like a Head Start program for a life of crime. On the one hand, we have Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a basically decent soul with the potential of escaping his surroundings as a professional photographer; on the other, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a little psychopath with the singular goal of dominating the local drug trade by any means necessary. At its heart, the movie is a comparative study of these two, a modern variant of the Shakespearean agenda to find out "which grain will grow and which will not" (as Macbeth put it). But there's a cast of equally arresting secondary characters to contend with, including Benny (Phelipe Haagensen), a hood whose criminal career may be ended by love; and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a well-liked dreamboat who gets caught up in a cycle of violence and retribution.
At various junctures, the film becomes a narrative vehicle for each of the featured players. The script (by Braulio Mantovani) bounces breathlessly back and forth in time, dropping in on its participants at different ages and reviewing events from their shifting perspectives. One brilliant vignette traces the checkered history of an apartment whose inhabitants come and go in waves of avarice, betrayal and homicide.
Eleven years after "Pulp Fiction," the temporally fractured narrative is still one of the most exciting tools at a filmmaker's disposal. Meirelles and his co-director, Katia Lund, play the format for all it's worth, revealing layers of story and character with a sly graduality. Factor in Cesar Charlone's thrilling cinematography (motive but not obnoxious) and Daniel Rezende's precise editing, and the result is one of those rare movies that allow you to hunker down happily in your seat, relieved to be in the hands of people who know exactly where they're taking you.
That's not to say that you'll always be comfortable. Matching style to purpose, "City of God" uses its filmmaking flair to expose the obscenity of underage gangster-hood. It's frankly shocking to see children (some of them mere tots) running around with guns they can barely lift -- and worse, using them on each other. It's also completely necessary, from both a dramatic and sociological standpoint. By depositing us in the presence of junior Scarfaces far too young to be playing with firearms, Meirelles poses a salient follow-up question: When's a good age to start, exactly?