An intoxicating shot of cinematic adrenaline, "City of God" starts with a desperate chicken escaping slaughter and being chased by a gang of pistol-packing prepubescents.
It's an apt allegory for the frantic fight for survival of the protagonists in this ferocious blast of gangster mayhem.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) narrates our journey into the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the City of God. A child of the 60s, he witnesses two decades of barbarity, greed, rape and revenge which fuel a catastrophic gang war.
Fear and an instinct for self-preservation keep him on the straight and narrow, but his childhood associate Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) grows into the ghetto's godfather - a ruthless, demented killer who makes Joe Pesci's "GoodFellas" psycho look like Mary Poppins.
Comparison's with Scorsese's crime classic are inevitable, given the hyperkinetic action, tar black comedy, and eye-snatching visual panache. But while there's no doubting the genius of "GoodFellas", for all its brutality it remained a caper, a gripping spectacle of hood vs hood, where the mobsters chose their glamour-filled lifestyle and ultimately got what they deserved.
In "City of God", desperation drives children to acts of outrageous violence, crime appears to be the only option in the moral and economic wasteland of the Brazilian favelas. Even the grotesque Li'l Zé is not without humanity, while the fate of other so-called gangsters is poignant.
For all its whiz-bang camerawork and outrageous entertainment value, the movie is grounded by its true life origins (Paulo Lins' fact-based novel), and the superb performances of a largely non-professional cast recruited from the streets. Gut-troubling horror follows cruel bellylaughs, and the relentless action is underscored by unforgiving poverty.
Shocking, frightening, thrilling and funny, "City of God" has the substance to match its lashings of style. Cinema doesn't get more exhilarating than this.
In Portuguese with English subtitles.