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Brutal artistry

City of God (R) (135 min.) _ Relentlessly grim and excessively violent, this fourth feature from former Brazilian television director Fernando Meirelles, abetted by inventive cinematographer Cesar Charlone, nevertheless blazes with visual ingenuity. It's a long, disturbing trip, not unlike Mexico's Amores Perros, one that may leave viewers weary of the brutality but exhilarated by the arrival of a major filmmaking talent.

City of God, a box-office champion in Brazil and a favorite at Cannes, gets its kicks, in part, from its roots in real life: The movie, set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, was adapted from the popular novel by Paulo Lins, a longtime resident of the titular housing project.

Lins based his story, spanning the 1960s through the 1980s, on the life of newspaper photographer Wilson Rodriguez. Meirelles, with the help of co-director Katia Lund, selected the nonprofessional cast from neighborhood kids, who were auditioned and trained to act for eight months before production started.

The result is a gritty drama that details the ascent of several of the neighborhood's lost boys from young thugs to powerful, notorious crime lords. Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the young shutterbug, narrates the story, centered on the exploits of gun-crazed Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva), who later changes his name to Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), and Bene (Phellipe Haagensen). The photographer parlays his friendship with gang members into a job, documenting slum life for a Rio daily.

Meirelles' film, which ultimately takes a pessimistic view of human nature, is packed with ugly images, including, most troubling, the forced murder of one boy by another, and Li'l Dice's punishment of two wayward, very young children: He shoots them in the feet. Still, the cinematic storytelling _ flashbacks, freeze frames, unusual camera points of view, multiple perspectives on the same sequences of events _ is dazzling. And a coda, offering video footage and photos of the people whose lives inspired the story, is jarring. B+

_ PHILIP BOOTH, Times staff writer