Built on a classic brother-against-brother narrative, Danish filmmaker Asger Leth's "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" is a forceful documentary set against the 2004 Haitian coup d'etat that toppled the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. An expressionistic portrait of a society in violent chaos, the film blends cinema verite and newsreel footage to capture a modern-day tragedy with Shakespearean overtones.
As Haiti moves toward anarchy, the notorious slums of its capital, Port-au-Prince, are ruled by the chimeres, ruthless gangs that largely support the Aristide regime. In Cite Soleil, described as one of the most dangerous places on Earth, 2pac and Bily are gang leaders on opposing trajectories. They also happen to be brothers.
The tough guy, 2pac, claims there will "never be peace." He raps his story in outlaw rhymes, resigned to the realities of a neighborhood so treacherous that, at 26, he is viewed as an elder statesman. He has grown disenchanted with Aristide and sees his music as a possible way out of the slums.
As the father of a 3-year-old girl, Bily is more hopeful and, at least initially, seems to be moving away from the violence and pushing for an environment that is safe for his people. He belongs to Aristide's Lavalas party and speaks with the commitment of an unjaded politician.
The intrinsic sibling rivalry is further complicated by the presence of a blond Frenchwoman, Eleonore "Lele" Senlis, identified as a relief worker, for whom both brothers fall hard. Her motivations are suspect, and she remains an enigmatic figure at the film's end. She is also credited with introducing Leth to the brothers.
The already intricate allegiances among the chimeres (or "ghosts") become more convoluted as Aristide's support breaks down and a rebel group, the Cannibal Army, moves toward the capital city. Writer-director Leth, along with his co-director and cinematographer, Milos Loncarevic, builds the parallel confrontations to a tense climax.
The overwhelming lawlessness gives the film the mood of a Western showdown, albeit one that takes place in urban squalor. The excellent score by Wyclef Jean (who executive produced and, perplexingly, appears on-screen mentoring 2pac) and Jerry Duplessis, strikes an appropriately ominous chord and incorporates the music of the gangster-wannabe rapper.
Though Leth romanticizes the plight of the thuggish brothers, he scores in his access to their deadly milieu. The rampant poverty of the densely packed slums is perceivable in nearly every shot, and the violence frequently explodes off the screen. There is an inevitability to all the bloodshed and a sadness that makes it feel all the more real.
"Ghosts of Cite Soleil." In English and French with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500.