Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

23 Mar 2012

(2002 Movie) City of God directed by: Fernando Meirelles

(Reaction) Dead End City by: Jose Angelo Singson

The highly lauded film City of God is a cynical, gritty saga of the intertwined lives of characters living in a Rio de Janeiro slum (favela in Portuguese) ironically named The City of God and how they cope with their ruthless surroundings, and the equally ruthless inhabitants within it. It is a powerful reminder that the civilized society we take for granted is actually a luxury that many are unable to enjoy. The film speaks heavily of the seasonal and cyclical nature of the life of man; primarily the season of a person's strength and plenty and the cycle of violence.

The film starts in medias res with a montage of juxtaposed scenes: a man sharpening a knife amidst a street party in its early stages. A chicken bobbing its' head about, obviously frightened as it watches other fellow chickens being quickly dispatched and gutted. The scene is visual metaphor for the brutality of the streets; literally for the more vicious citizens of the City of God, weaker individuals are nothing more than food.

The scene then quickly changes from party to a bunch of gun-toting kids chasing a frenzied chicken that managed to escape down a maze of alleyways, accompanied by catchy, upbeat music. This particular scene gives us a preliminary show of the obvious skill with the camera and critical eye the director possesses as he shifts from ground level shots (what I would like to call chicken cam) to elevated views of the slums to give us a clearer image of how vastly different the world of the favela is.

The scene ends when the kids run into the lead character Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and he suddenly finds himself in the middle of an armed stand-off with cops on one side and a gang (equally armed) on the other. Once more the director adds a liberal dose of his creativity and pulls a Matrix--style time freeze 360 degree rotating shot around Rocket, giving us all possible angles of his confused and frightened face.

As he contemplates how truly screwed he is he then breaks into an internal monologue asking how did it come to this? Suddenly, the scene shifts to Rocket as a young boy (perhaps 6-7 years old at the most) playing football on a dirt field. We now find ourselves in the 1960's and Rocket recounts how the City of God came to be.

The movie traces the community's decline over a period of 15-20 odd years. We see it change from a sun-baked shantytown of dun-colored bungalows populated by poor fishermen to a matted mess of corrugated steel populated by junkies and mobsters. In early scenes we see the children whittle the hours away in soccer games under the blazing midday sun and petty thievery as the social scourge of the day. These eventually give way into scenes of a labyrinthine slum immersed in darkness teeming with armed adolescents, all willing to kill at the slightest provocation.

The movie itself is divided into three chapters; each chapter scenically and thematically becoming darker than its precursor. The chapters are analogous to the linked destinies of Rocket and one of his childhood playmates, Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva). Years pass and Li'l Dice changes his nickname to Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) as he assumes the role of kingpin of a narcotics and firearms empire. As the story progresses the drugs become lethal (cocaine supplants marijuana) and the weaponry, more deadly.

The second chapter, set in the 1970's, focuses on Li'l Ze, now a full-blown sociopath with no compunction for pointless killing, and his iron-fisted rule over the favela. The only one keeping his murderous impulses at bay is his second in command, Benny/Bene (Phellipe Haagensen), a canny, charismatic good-egg of a gangster with hippie flair who eventually decides to leave gang life behind. The farewell party Benny organizes for himself (to the theme of ''Kung Fu Fighting'') turns tragically violent, as he is accidentally killed by one of Li'l Ze's many enemies. Visually this is one of the film's more beautiful set pieces and it gives the viewer a true taste of how vibrant a Brazilian street party can truly be. This happy event is also thematically the end of the happy era of the film and marks the advent of the really violent years of Li'l Ze's rule as now his Jiminy Cricket/counterweight/muzzle is now dead and can no longer rein in Li'l Ze's bloodlust. Without Benny, Li'l Ze is a mad dog without a leash.

The final third of the film is set in the early 1980's and here we see Li'l Ze's criminal empire beset on all sides by rivals and those who'd just plain refuse to kowtow to his authority. His deadliest rival for dominance is a group led by Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) who, in keeping with the theme of cycles and seasons, turns from a peaceful bus-fare collector into an agent of death after Li'l Ze rapes his girlfriend and shoots his brother.

It is at this point that the viewer will now begin to really miss the sunlit shots of the earlier scenes. Now, most of the shots are filmed at night and the darkness that pervades the scenes is oppressive, serving to highlight the danger and the vileness that has come over the community in the form of drugs and violence.

Amidst all this madness we are privy to our protagonist/narrator's attempt at trying to keep up with the mad tempo the City of God dances to: we see Rocket trying his best to win a girl's heart, befriending drug-peddlers, and even his sad, pathetic attempt at becoming a gangster. Once more the dark humor comes into play---he can't rob a store because the girl at the register is too cute and he ends up spending instead. He cannot will himself to rob the bus driver because the man has been too nice to Rocket.

Rocket, for all intents and purposes, is merely the audience's eyes and ears. He is as much an observer of the goings-on in the City of God as the movie-goer is, and like the movie-goer, every bit as powerless to affect his surroundings. He is truly no cookie-cutter movie hero. He is just trying to survive; just trying to get by with his hide intact. This half-hearted involvement in life-at-large is his coping mechanism and eventually his ticket to freedom as he chooses to become a photographer for the local newspaper.

Rocket's career of choice poses an interesting quandary: to survive the brutality of the favela should one fully distance one's self from it? Is total abandonment of the favela the key to survival and success? The movie seems to fully support this course of action. Although Rocket and everybody else hails from the favela their dearest aspiration is escape from it using whatever means possible.

Benny wanted to retire not just from criminal life but from the drudgery of the slums. He wanted to leave while he was young and strong and live out the rest of his days as an easy-going small time drug peddling hippie. Li'l Ze wanted to escape as well, but escape for him meant beating the dog-eat-dog system of the slums into submission with raw force and sheer cruelty. Rocket distanced himself from everything and kept everything at camera's length distance as his means of, ironically, confronting the reality of violence and urban decay. I do not read this course of non-involvement by Rocket as a function of cowardice but rather the result of a holistic understanding of the events surrounding them.

Rocket has seen the emergence and the degradation of conditions in the slums and knows that the problem is much more than a few bad eggs that made poor decisions that affect the greater whole. The problem is a cultural one, a shared system of beliefs that has so permeated the society of the favela that it is all but impossible to correct. Violence and one-up-manship has become so ingrained in the minds of the inhabitants that literally the favela is doomed to self-destruct.

You can see this defeated, cynical thinking throughout the movie but most especially in the last few scenes of the film where Li'l Ze is gunned down by a mob of Runts (again the cycle of violence and the end of a man's season of strength and plenty) and a few more scenes after we see the runts happily, almost excitedly, making a hit list of the dealers they plan to murder in order to take over their drug business.

To me this is an extremely poignant, extremely sad moment in the movie. The cycle of violence and culture of decay is so deeply rooted in their society that the minute one drug lord/crime lord dies someone else steps up to fill the power vacuum. The favela, as presented in the film, is a lost cause. It is a place where the sky has fallen; a place where the Ourboros serpent has already eaten its tail. To remain in the favela is to be sucked up in a vortex of bloodshed where one either dies... or becomes an inextricable part of the circle of atrocities.

Li'l Ze on the other hand serves as the yin to Rocket's yang. He is the direct polar opposite of Rocket's character and makes for an interesting study on the human condition, particularly on the question of nature vs. nurture. In the film we see Li'l Ze progress from a rotten kid, to a juvenile delinquent, then a murderer and finally a full-blown remorseless sociopath.

So just what does make a person go bad? What makes a person go off the deep end? It's a loaded question with no clear answer. Best as I can tell, in this film at least, Li'l Ze was a bad egg from the get-go. Thing is, with an environment that praised ruthlessness as a virtue, someone like Li'l Ze was doomed to failure. Violence begets violence and his life exemplified this old maxim. Initially, violence was only a means to an end. If he wanted to play football but had no football to play with he'd just take one forcibly from one of the other kids with the threat of bodily harm. As he grew older violence was a means to be accepted into the Tender Trio's gang. Tragically though he developed a taste for violence and by film's end violence was no longer a mere tool but an end in itself. He meted out violence for the perverse joy it brought him. In Li'l Ze's case he was a terrible collaboration between nurture and nature. Life in the favela is tough, but it doesn't mean to say that its inhabitants are 100% without exception, rotten to the core. After all, life is a series of choices, but in the favela unfortunately one's choices are terribly limited. Tragically though Li'l Ze took the path most frequently travelled: the low road and he reaped the inevitable fruit that grew alongside the low road's path.


What a movie. Raw, gritty, violent in ways that really jar the violence-hardened sensibilities of someone who grew up on action films, this is a movie that breaks new ground in its presentation of life in the slums of Brazil. There is a frightening authenticity and a refreshing honesty that permeates the movie as it presents a world of poverty, violence, death (literal and figurative) and unavoidable tragedy. It presents all of these without becoming preachy and without the obvious poverty exploitation that many urban decay/crime drama films tend to pander.

It makes it both refreshing in its realism and frightening because it doesn't sugar-coat or gloss over the bitter reality of such a place (spoiler alert: if you are sensitive to violence against children then press the forward button when you get to the scene where Li'l Ze catches up with the Runts... *shudder*).

The film is an odd bird though. It isn't exactly what I would call a feel-good movie or a classic crime drama but take it for what it is: a story as realistically told by one of its inhabitants and it is a wonderful rendition of his story.

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