Freshman director Fernando Meirelles takes the title of his movie from a book by the same name. It's an examination of a frightening Rio de Janeiro slum which begins quite promisingly, but winds up as an overlong but ambitious debut. Using a group of unprofessional street kids as his protagonists, the director combines natural lighting, handheld camerawork and brutally stark cinematography to create a stunningly naturalistic examination of lost lives amid a drug culture that seems to be every bit as pervasive in Brazil as it is in the U.S. But at 2 and 1/4 hours in length, the film wears out its welcome, principally because Meirelles maintains such a frenetic pace the audience can't find much in the development of his characters to generate real sympathy for them.
The film covers more than a decade in the lives of a dizzyingly large number of pre-pubescent males in what the narrator describes as "a slum built by the government" to warehouse the deluge of poor rural Brazilians who've flocked to the city to find work. The action initially focuses on a trio of teenage males who refer to themselves as gangsters, and who spend much of their time haphazardly pulling armed robberies with more energy than intelligence. (Their story is narrated by Rocket, the younger brother of one of the three, whose wary observations on the environment around him give the storyline its minimal continuity.) Despite their Keystone-Cops modus operandi, the threat of unforeseen and unnecessary violence oozes into the lives of these three young men like smoke from a damp campfire. They're kids, playing at deadly adult games without any sense of the risks involved. When they impulsively allow a young hanger-on by the name of Lil’ Ze to talk them into knocking over a whorehouse while he acts as a lookout, the three hit the criminal big-leagues with a vengeance. They're forced into hiding, not knowing that the cops now seek them for murders the maniacal Lil Ze committed after the trios hasty departure from the crime scene.
By the time these adolescent criminals emerge from hiding, the audience knows they'll destined to die, randomly and violently. The story then picks up years later, as Rocket circles warily around the now older and more violent Lil’ Ze, who now heads a gang terrorizing the crumbling precincts of what a decade earlier was a much more orderly and livable community.
In an effort to extend his control over the drug business in this depressing ghetto, Lil’ Ze takes on a gang of rivals headed by Carrot and his strongman, Knockout Ned. The body count grows as the director repeatedly confirms that the police exist mainly to take bribes from the players in this murderous cauldron while letting the participants eliminate each other in a macho feeding frenzy of irrational explosiveness. In this hermetically sealed universe, (not unlike the one delivered no more effectively in The Gangs of New York) the multiple protagonists doesn't form close friendships with anyone, because no one lasts very long.
The film has an eerily adolescent feel; adults are rarely seen and never accorded more than a modicum of sullen respect from these young thugs. While there are some vivid personalities presented, none is given anything to do other than shoot, duck, run or die. Once it becomes apparent we're witnessing young people so poisoned by their environment they can only meet a bad end, the remainder of the movie merely involves explaining exactly how that occurs. The mendacity of the police and the careless violence of children brutalized by their surroundings certainly aren’t a bad point of departure for a harrowing movie, but this one finally becomes just an exercise in oddly detached observation because there isn't enough character development in these kids for the audience to care about them. That they're destined for awful fates is painfully obvious--what isn't offered is an explanation of just what might have made a difference in their lives that would have made their deaths more meaningful. The director gets the ambiance here down pat, but substance is sadly lacking.
The verdict? An impressive first-effort from a promising talent in a film that could use a bit more insight to go along with its commendably flashy cinematic attitude.Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus