Gangs of Rio de Janeiro

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The toughest thug in the Rio slum of Cidade de Deus stands impatiently outside a brothel as his gang robs the patrons. Miffed at being excluded from the fun, he strides in and kills everyone. It's his first mass murder — the ideal calling card for a precocious psychopath. Li'l Ze, as he will come to be known, is 9 years old.

Virtually all the punks in the City of God hood are teenage or younger. To be older is to be dead — killed for any reason or none, by rivals or the horde of infant pretenders. A kind of Menudo Mean Streets, Fernando Meirelles' fact-based epic zigzags through the stories of a dozen hoodlums and 20 years of carnage. The only thing worse than the sadistic glee with which Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) runs the town is the veneration he gets from kids who confuse machismo with maturity. "I smoke and snort," one tyro terrorist says. "I've killed and robbed. I'm a man."

City of God is the latest film in the vital new Latin American cinema, and the fiercest. Next to it, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien seem like slouchers. The storytelling and filmmaking vigor never lets up. The camera takes a bullet's point of view as it ricochets toward a victim; the tangled history of a gang's hideout is shown in two dozen supple dissolves; a bank heist is replayed to clear up a murder mystery. Because the director has brought his monsters and their world to teeming life, City of God conquers your scruples and stokes an appreciation for the feral strength of the doomed kids. The film is seductive, disturbing, enthralling — a trip to hell that gives the passengers a great ride.

And, at the end, a moral queasiness, as one gang is wiped out and a still younger one rises to claim the spoils. You wonder if the next generation of Li'l Zes will pop out of their mothers' wombs, guns blazing, ready to take over.