With the remarkably accomplished City of God, debuting Brazilian feature director Fernando Meirelles delivers the kind of superbly crafted, energy-packed, logistically challenging cinematic package of Hollywood bait that previously landed other foreign filmmakers like Lee Tamahori, Luc Besson and Bruce Beresford big-budget gigs in the Left Coast factories. The film, boasting Walter Salles (Central Station) as one of its co-producers, arrives with considerable pedigree--the script was workshopped at Sundance and the film ultimately gained a rep as it traveled the festival circuit. Not that City of God--a photographer's tale of the ultra-violent, relentless gang wars he witnessed over several decades growing up in a Rio slum--is a day at the (Rio) beach. Rather, Meirelles embraces a dazzling visual style achieved by both film and video capture, special effects, steely cold blue/brown/yellow hues, jump cuts and seductive sound design to deliver an unstintingly horrifying look at youths who kill all too easily and frequently. Meirelles' commitment to authenticity and to his theme (life in this moral vacuum is very cheap) will divide audiences: The meta-realism and frequent violence will send some running; the superb craftsmanship on view, in spite of the violence, should win over many others.

The opening credit sequence--a chicken being chased for dinner as a rival gang showdown is about to take place--sets the tone, theme and hurried pace. As recounted by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the photographer who escaped the fate of his peers, the film flashes back to several segments, each capturing the violent events of a different decade.

Meirelles' energized, stylized gumbo, teeming with violent teens, mixes Woo and Tarantino-like kinetics with the feel of other gritty youth classics like Pixote and Barbet Schroeder's more recent Colombia-lensed Our Lady of the Assassins. Because so much of the breathless, often gang-related, life-and-death action is driven by a spectacular soundtrack (mostly crackling Brazilian and American R&B hits), the film also resonates as a more lethal, brutal West Side Story. Meirelles also draws amazing performances from his immense non-professional cast.

Rocket's tale is a non-stop assault of youthful brutality, crime and death. In the '60s, it's the rise to power of the murderous teen Z. Later decades have Z, the charismatic and idealistic Bene and the ruthless Carrot embroiled in deadly drug wars until a final showdown with the handsome Knockout Ned, motivated to avenge the rape of his girlfriend. As the violence escalates, it's Rocket's photo coverage in the Rio press that brings notoriety to this ungodly area and its murderous denizens.

As violent as it is accomplished, City of God--like its eponymous slum--may divide audiences just as it divides its population of warring youths.

-Doris Toumarkine