The generally favorable reviews for The Constant Gardener brings renewed attention to Fernando Meirelles' much talked-about but little seen first film, City of God (rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug content, and language). City of God landed Mr. Meirelles international attention and three Oscar nominations (including best director) in 2004.
The film, available on DVD, is a stylish, brutal, street-level picture of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Much of the film's violence and sexual material is impressionistic rather than explicit, but is often very, very difficult to watch.
City of God begins in the 1960s and follows a group of characters that shrinks and grows as one or another is either killed off or gets pulled into the cycle of violence that controls the city.
Mr. Meirelles worked with an impressive cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, staging horrifying scenes of, mostly, kids with guns. The city is controlled by gangs of drug runners and thieves, many barely out of diapers, let alone in their teens.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is the one bright spot in the story, a kid who flirts with a life of crime but finds himself ill-suited for it-instead focusing on his desire to become a photojournalist. He acts as the film's narrator and documentarian, opening the audience's eyes to the tragedy of daily life in the slums.
Mr. Meirelles is clearly a talented director. He pulls out every trick in his repertoire, each scene visually loaded. But while that works for the film on one level-sucking the audience into the raw energy of slum life-it detracts from its ultimate impact. The tragedy and horror of this city so ironically named is mitigated by the slickness of the production, something that becomes obvious by taking a look at the documentary on Cidade de Deus included as a special feature on the DVD. The unaltered gaze of a news camera shows real life in the City of God to be far more depressing without the vibrant colors and swirling motion of Mr. Meirelles' camera.