Scripted by Braulio Mantovani and based on the novel by Paulo Lins who grew up in the ironically named Rio slum that gives this film its title, City of God is the story of a ghetto survivor. Rocket (Alexander Rodriguez) is an intelligent, mild-mannered boy who lives with his family in a sprawling cold-water housing project on the outskirts of the city. Education is spotty. And the culture of poverty, isolation and hopelessness breeds wide-spread drug use and astonishing violence. Rocket's older brother and some other teens acquire guns and turn to lawlessness. But these boys have not yet lost all their moral moorings. They rob and bully, but they don't kill. And they don't last long. Soon they fall to the bullets of more ruthless youngsters a half decade their juniors.
By the time he's 11, L'il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) has killed a dozen people, including Rocket's older brother. By the time he's 15, Ze has surrounded himself with a gang of cold-blooded killers his own age and younger and has taken over the housing project in partnership with a slightly older and slightly less ruthless boy named Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). Carrot and Ze divide the drug trade between them, carve control of their impoverished territory into two distinct sections and, for a time, manage to coexist. Like a young Don Corleone settling disputes in Manhattan's Italian tenements, they even manage to curb the violence for a while.
The partnership even produces a gangster diplomat that will recall Ben Kingsley's Meyer Lansky in Bugsy. Benny (Philippe Haagensen) has grown up at Ze's side. But unlike his control-freak, psychopathic compadre, Benny is natively happy, instinctively friendly and possessed of comparable good sense. He seems to do so unconsciously, but as long as he lives, he works to keep the simmering rivalry between Ze and Carrot from boiling over into war. When Benny is killed by a teenaged assassin trying to murder Ze, however, the gangs fall on each other with the same senseless brutality we saw in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
Off to the side of this action Rocket tries to steer a course that will enable him to live to adulthood. He joins neither Ze's gang nor Carrot's, but he knows all the boys involved and tries to avoid triggering their animosity. He gets odd jobs, none of which bring him much money, and he dreams of becoming a photographer, though he's too poor to own a camera. Finally, he lands a job delivering newspapers and gets to meet the photojournalists who are his heroes. Shortly later, Ze himself gives Rocket a camera so Ze and his gang can pose for macho snapshots reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. When the newspaper publishes Rocket's photos, a career is born, a miraculous escape provided.
Cinematographer Cesar Charlonne's herky-jerky camera work proves tiring at times, and Meirelles has edited the picture as if he expected an audience with the attention span of his coke-addled subjects. Moreover, two narrative elements prove unconvincing. Given the nature of their personalities, we haven't a clue why Benny remains loyal to Ze. And throughout this movie we keep wondering what the almost invisible adults are doing. And in the end, this picture is too matter-of-fact. It ought to deliver an emotional knockout. But it doesn't.
This is a picture viewers won't soon forget, however. Novelist Lins didn't escape this ghetto until age 30, and his details of the housing project's squalor ring frighteningly true. Hector Babenco's Pixote and Walter Salles' Central Station have earlier testified to the heartbreaking horror of Brazilian children abandoned by society to run wild on the streets. Among the most staggering revelations in City of God is how much violence is practiced for so little. Long after Ze's gang has seized control of the drug trade, the boys continue to live in appalling circumstances. They have money for guns and bullets, but evidently little else. Ze manages to buy himself a gold chain and a bracelet. Benny feels rich when he gets a nice T-shirt and a new pair of pants. There is so little money in the City of God that even when they've conquered it, they don't have anything anybody else would want.