When 151MM asked PHS students what they associated with the word “film,” one response was “no more pain,” as if film provided some sort of pleasing, anesthetic effect. This is certainly true of many movies, where the intent is to provide an escape or lull from daily life. City of God (2002) is not one of them. It is a film of opportunities lost, crushing poverty, and a cycle of continued pain. The slums of Rio de Janeiro are not an image of where we would rather be but a reminder of how lucky we are to not be there.
Directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, City of God is honest and uncondescending, almost playing off as a stylized documentary, and offers a glimpse into the favelas of Brazil. Meirelles began his career directing TV commercials, where it was necessary to quickly adjust and take the shot. His technique is quick and concise and enables him to shoot much of the film on small, handheld cameras. The result is an abundance of shaky shots befitting the lively shootout and chase scenes but also never lacking in detail. These are juxtaposed with extreme, almost claustrophobic close-ups which focus on the bright sheen of sweat on the children’s faces or their dark, haunting eyes. City of God’s spinning transitions and flashbacks, as well as its vibrant scene changes, are only fitting for a story where each turn may result in unexpected opportunity or sudden death.
The movie begins in medias res, following an escaped chicken from a gang cookout as it flees through the slum streets. As the gang chases it, we jump cut to Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who unwittingly becomes trapped between it and a police squadron. As the camera spins around Rocket, who finds himself surrounded by gun-toting gang members and policemen, the movie flashes back to the undeveloped outskirts of Rio, where young Rocket and his friends are playing soccer. In this scene, the gang roots of later antagonist Lil’ Dice (Leandro Firmino) are revealed through his association with the “Tender Trio,” a group of older gangsters who pull off petty crimes for cash. Their recklessness and loose lifestyle gain the respect and admiration of Rocket’s young friends. From an early age, they see the older gang members as Robin Hood figures, charismatically stealing from the rich and giving money back to their slums. But unlike Robin Hood, they have no ideals to strive toward — their robberies are habitual, the result of the poverty that raises them and undermines their education and legitimacy. Their “Sheriff of Nottingham” is the gang culture that traps them and becomes their only means of survival.
Another ten years passes, and the vast, rural wilderness of the City of God has now become an urban jungle, with rusty tin roofs and dirty, narrow alleys. Using a diverse set of shots and angles, Meirelles subtly portrays the passage of time as well as the constantly changing power of the drug lords. Often shooting from above or from a fixed camera with quickly changing sets, Meirelles creates a time lapse effect, showing us that while poverty remains constant, the City of God is a dynamic place. Rocket has become a truant teen who is equally consumed by his passion for photography and the beautiful Angelica (Alice Braga), for whom he is willing to do anything, including buying her cocaine from the local dealer. Unfortunately, love never seems to pan out in the City of God. Angelica is portrayed as an Estella Havisham-esque figure, unable to love others and readily flaunting her beauty. Other relationships are short-lived and fall apart in horrible ways, often involving rape or violent, gruesome deaths. Meirelles shows us that when basic human needs are barely met, love becomes an unnecessary luxury good, distracting or impeding us from safety.
As the movie fast forwards to the present, we find a grown-up Lil’ Dice, now rechristened as Lil’ Z, who has become a ruthless gang leader, having eliminated all other competitors. Only the drug dealer Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and his dwindling turf remain to oppose him. Ironically, this brings a period of relative lawfulness to the ghetto, as Lil’ Z lays down rules against petty crimes. Unfortunately, he uses brutal violence to enforce this peace. In one heart-rending scene, he makes an example out of a little boy, so young that he still runs around in his underwear, by shooting him in the foot for stealing a chicken. Often the only one standing between him and his lethally compulsive tendencies is his best friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), the “coolest hood in the City of God,” whose charisma and relative generosity make him stand out and almost transcend the slums. And yet, just as Benny is prepared to get away from it all and start anew, gang violence inevitably makes its mark on his life — by taking it. On the night of Benny’s going-away party, one of Lil’ Z’s enemies, aiming for Lil’ Z, accidentally shoots Benny instead. “Why remain in the City of God where God has forgotten you?” a soothsayer asks earlier. Rocket answers that for us: “If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.”
Without Benny’s calming presence, Lil’ Z goes on a rampage, prepared to take out Carrot once and for all. One night, in a fit of rage caused by his romantic failures, Lil’ Z humiliates the handsome but meek Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) and rapes his girlfriend before proceeding to mow down his house, killing his brother and uncle. Ned, seeking revenge, breaks his peace and joins with Carrot, preparing for a final showdown with Lil’ Z.
Knockout Ned’s fall from grace is one of the most heartbreaking in the movie. Once a charismatic and likable figure, he was the ‘white knight’ who opposed Lil’ Z using his “peace and love” ideals. But he is quickly brought down to the gang level and, by his third holdup, is killing like a seasoned member. Contrast this with Benny, who enters the drug business as a child with Lil’ Z but is almost able to rise above and escape the slums. The metaphorical decrescendo and crescendo of their lives are another reminder of the inability to escape from death in the favelas. Even for Benny, whose death seems like a product of bad luck, safety is constantly threatened by the environment around him. For them, death is simply a matter of time.
Meanwhile, Rocket has found a job delivering newspapers. While he is developing a roll of film for Lil’ Z, his photos are accidentally discovered by the press, and his photo of Lil’ Z is used on the front page. Rocket agrees to become a photographer for the newspaper and acquire more pictures of Lil’ Z. At this point, we arrive back at the escape of the chicken, where Lil’ Z is holding a cookout to recruit young boys to fight for him. As Lil’ Z and Carrot’s forces finally face off, many gang members are killed, including Ned. Both gang leaders are arrested, but while the police keep Carrot “for the press,” they release Lil’ Z after he pays them a bribe, all of which is caught on camera by Rocket. The children Lil’ Z recruited come back with guns and kill Lil’ Z, claiming his drug empire for their own. Even with the death of the hated Lil’ Z, there is no positive resolution or looking up for better times ahead. His death is gruesome, cruel, and lonely, and symbolizes the continuation of crime as the next generation comes to take his place. The cycle continues, even after the death of the villain.
The film ends on Rocket’s ultimatum — expose the picture of police bribery and rise to national fame or give pictures of Lil’ Z’s body to the newspaper and earn a job there. Fearing retribution from the deeply corrupt and dangerous police, he decides to stick with the newspaper. He remarks cynically, “I won’t have to worry about Lil’ Z anymore. But the police?” Only Rocket seems to end up okay, becoming the professional photographer Wilson Rodriguez upon whom the story is partially based. But even he, who seemingly stays relatively clean of crime, seriously considers robbery at one point due to dearth of opportunity. It was completely by chance that he was discovered by the newspaper agency and earned a shot at legitimacy. The same undiscerning, fickle chance that took Benny’s life.
The experience of watching this movie is comparable to eating comfort food. During the film, many aspects of it are highly enjoyable — wonderfully vibrant sets, a beautiful love interest, and witty narration. Yet afterward it leaves the viewer with a sick, greasy feeling in the stomach, as well as a guilty conscience hanging overhead. Of course, much of it stems from the strong feeling of hopelessness in the film: love is spurned, role models are criminals, poverty is crushing, and death is everywhere. Yet more importantly, it stems from the cinematic work of Meirelles, who, rather than creating escapism for entertainment’s sake, seeks to draw attention to the slums of Rio, where many of these conditions still continue. The film garnered international attention, being nominated for four Academy Awards, and drew praise from the Brazilian president, who deemed it a call to action for fighting poverty. Strikingly, all the child actors used in the film were actual children from Rio’s favelas with no prior acting experience. While this adds to the merit and enjoyability of the film, it also enables the film to achieve its authenticity, enables the realization that these children lived these roles, that no longer is it acting but simply an extension of their lives captured on camera.