Covering several decades in the lives of various low-level gangsters inhabiting a seedy housing project on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, City of God is as tough and brutal as they come, but it's also a movie bursting with life. The film's graphic accounts of casually amoral slum kids engaged in endless, bloody turf wars entwine beauty and ugliness, humor with horror, so that when those of us in the audience laugh or even smile, it's almost always accompanied by a tinge of guilt and a sharp gasping for breath.
The film's stories flip back and forth through the years, generating a fluid, elastic sense of time recalling the post-modern playfulness of Pulp Fiction or Amores Peros. The baby-faced tyke in one segment turns into the sullen death-dealer in the next, as if illustrating some perversely unkind and ungentle variation of Disney's Circle of Life. Families grow, change and splinter, and gang allegiances are revealed as the true glue that binds the various characters together and, at key moments, blasts them apart.
City of God is a comic tragedy about people who appear to change and to speed along at the speed of sound while, in actuality, they're standing absolutely still. A compelling social history as eccentric and epic in scope as P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights and as brutal as Quentin Tarantino's bloodiest ironies, the film is all things to all viewers, but with a gritty power that is, above all, uniquely and authentically Brazilian.
The widescreen transfer on Buena Vista/Miramax's new DVD of City of God is a treat, coaxing more nuances of color from the film's parched and dusty landscapes than an Eskimo has words for snow. The movie's elegantly composed images and pop-pulp sensibility practically leap off the screen, with each decade codified with a different look — the '60s sequences are shot with a nostalgic, golden glow (although this journey is anything but sentimental), the '70s make use of saturated, super-8-ish color, and so on. Screens split, motion slows down, speeds up, stops, and every element becomes something to shock or delight us.
We've seen this story before, more or less — the blood, the budding psychopaths, the all-too-young victims of urban decay — but never quite like this. City of God hits harder than ever on DVD (complete with an outstanding, hour-long bonus documentary providing ample historical context), and it deserves to be seen today. 1/2