Robbed! City of God should have won

The "chicken run" sequence that opens Fernando Meirelles' City of God (Cidade de Deus) is almost worth the price of admission. It includes an amazing shot of the bird running under a moving van and out the side, between the wheels. You'll see it again at the end, after nearly two hours of flashbacks bring us back around to the same point in the story.

Based on true events, City of God is an American gangster movie of the 1930s rethought by Quentin Tarantino and set in Brazil with a young, mostly nonprofessional cast. City of God is a housing project where the Rio de Janeiro government sends the homeless to keep them from scaring the tourists on Copacabana Beach, 15 miles away.

The poorest of the poor manage to create and maintain a thriving drug business, and most of the people who run it are not yet out of their teens. In fact, most of them never will get out of their teens.

The tale begins in the 1960s with The Tender Trio– Shaggy, Clipper, and Goose– and their ambitious young apprentice, Li'l Dice, and his friend Benny. The robbery of a sex motel turns violent and brings heavy police attention to the boys' favela (slum). We don't learn everyone's fate right away, the way the story is told by Goose's little brother, Rocket, but we move on to the '70s.

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has a passion for photography, bought his first camera at 16. He's still trying to lose his virginity. His friend Blacky is the top drug dealer in the hood, but not for long. Li'l Dice, now known as Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), takes over everything but a small area ruled by Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), who is a friend of Benny's (Phelipe Haagensen). Benny acts as Li'l Ze's prime minister, calming the ruthless, trigger-happy teenager when he can. Li'l Ze is crazier than Cagney ever thought of being, but he earns respect by keeping City of God free of any crime he doesn't control.

Benny falls in love and announces he's leaving. His farewell party brings together all the favela's factions. When a legitimate job doesn't work out, Rocket flirts with crime but finds everyone too cool to rob. Among his near-victims is Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a heroic type who will eventually take sides when City of God is divided in all-out war between Li'l Ze and Carrot.

If you know how the real-life story turned out, you won't be too surprised by how it develops in the movie, but otherwise you'll be kept intrigued following all the twists and turns. It's a violent, shocking film, especially when pre-teens with guns are involved, but the narrative style keeps it more exhilarating than depressing.

I saw City of God and the already forgotten Biker Boyz a day apart. Both have an unwieldy number of characters, but City of God lets you know more about more of them, even some who are only around for a few minutes or who are played by different actors at different ages; and it does this without letting the pace flag. Each film would stand or fall on its own merits anyway, but seeing them close together heightens the contrast between them and underscores why City of God should have won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.