City of God

At the beginning of City of

God, the critically-acclaimed new movie about the slums of Rio de Janeiro,

a young thug in the eponymous neighborhood is showing off his footwork to some

younger kids. As he kicks a football from foot to foot, the kids count along

with him – "11! 12! 13!" – until his friends run up with

the news that a gas truck is approaching. He boots the ball up into the air,

pulls out a gun, and shoots a hole through it as he turns to run off for the

hold-up. The director, Fernando Meirelles, freezes the football in mid-air,

a hole bulging out at its top where the bullet escaped along with the compressed

air inside.

The scene is shocking: the casual violence and gunplay, the way in which an

older hood nonchalantly scuppers a football game by deflating the ball, the

conflation of playful sport and serious crime. But guns are everywhere in this

film, from the very beginning, when a hood pulls a pistol on a runaway chicken,

to the blood-soaked ending. I can’t imagine that five minutes pass at any point

when we don’t see someone brandishing a gun, be it a hardened sociopath or a

six-year-old delinquent.

The anti-hero of the movie, Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) starts

on his life of crime by committing one of the bloodiest atrocities in Rio de

Janeiro history – not an easy task. What’s more, he does it just for fun,

laughing hysterically at the corpses in front of him, men and women who had

already given all their money to his accomplices. Oh, and did I mention he’s

barely into his teens?

But it’s not just Li’l Zé who acts like a character out of some dystopian

comic-book. At times, it seems that a scene can’t end without another character

being killed off, be it by hoods, by the police, by a jealous husband, or just

by sheer bad luck. At the beginning, the violence is shocking, even when all

that’s being shot is a football. By the end, we’re numbed senseless, and the

climactic all-out running street battle barely registers. Many more people die

than in the equivalent scene in, say, Michael Mann’s Heat, but the

sequence is so predictable that by that point we’ve given up caring. Boy becomes

hood, dies: it’s a story we see over and over again, with the only differences

in the details. Not one of the hoods escapes, not one is redeemed. Insofar as

there’s a narrative structure to the film, it exists only to provide enough

space to make sure that everybody dies at some point.

Everybody? Not quite. One boy does make it out of the slums and into a proper

job, due to a string of incredible coincidences. He’s Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues),

our narrator, who miraculously avoids ever committing a crime, and whose love

of taking photos on the beach turns out to be his ticket out of the ghetto.

He’s the boy who can walk into the City of God with a camera and walk out in

one piece, unlike any of the middle-class journalists on the local daily. Armed

with his street savvy, he knows where the dirty deals are going to go down,

and parlays that knowledge into a magazine cover.

At the end of the film, a new generation of hoods is growing up,

plotting its own senseless killings, filling the vacuum left by the dead. We,

the audience, meanwhile, are not exactly filled with a missionary zeal to go

down to Brazil and save these poor children from their dog-eat-dog upbringings.

(They don’t even have hot running water, you know!) The omnipresent violence

in the film has turned it from an exposé into an exploitation flick,

or at best just another sub-Guy Ritchie gangster movie. (It doesn’t help that

the lead villiain looks astonishingly like one of the big drug dealers in Lock,

Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.) None of the characters are really developed,

with the possible exception of the lead, and the female parts are woefully few and


Part of the problem comes from the fact that the script was adapted from a

sprawling 500-page memoir, covering 30 years in the history of Rio de Janeiro.

In order to turn it into a film, it would seem that everything was cut but the

most violent parts, giving an impression of a slum so anarchic that it’s a wonder

anybody survives it at all. The hoods in this film get into arguments with each

other occasionally, and after a while one’s generally surprised if no one is

dead at the end of a disagreement over the relative merits of marijuana and cocaine. The idea that there is a community, a life beyond crime,

in the favela is completely lost.

That said, City of God has been a very successful and important film

in Brazil. It’s brought the plight of the slum-dwellers to the population as

a whole, and by telling their stories rather than simply demonising them as

evil criminals, it has changed the nature of the debate about how to deal with

the country’s rampant poverty. For that, it should be praised. The acting, too,

is first-rate, mostly from non-professionals plucked from the slums. Would that

many Hollywood actors had the naturalism of these kids!

But as an art-house film in cinemas in north America and Europe, City of

God is a failure. The director bangs too frequently on the same note; the

script has little shape, substance or subtlety; and the dispassionate, documentary-style

nature of the filmmaking leaves us unmoved. More worthy than it is good, City

of God is the type of film whose subject matter makes it hard to criticise.

Everything from the subject matter to the use of untrained actors makes us want

to like this film. But as entertainment, it’s not up to Hollywood standards,

as documentary, it’s too cavalier with reality, and and art, it simply lacks

depth and beauty.

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2 Responses to City of God

  1. erika says:

    You say that the acting from non-professionals is first rate. I agreee, and that is good enough for me. True, the viewer is kept at a distance, no heart rendering emotional involvement is attempted. And that, too, is fine by me. I certainly liked the film, pondered about it and would recommend it for viewing.


  2. Joanna says:

    Reading FelixÌs review of City of God, itÌs hard to believe he and I saw the same film. We donÌt agree about much, not even the beginning. For him it started on a football field, while for me it began with jump cuts of flashing silver that eventually materialise into a knife being sharpened on a whetstone –an image that is subsequently spliced with shots of a scrawny hen, wattles aquiver, watching the evisceration of an avian cohort. This initial scene Ò the escape of the victim Ò which is also the final scene, suggests that this film, as much as anything else, is about seeing and knowing, about multiple points of view. Not only is City of God about shooting guns, it is about shooting photographs. Different camera angles re-visit and enlarge ÏknownÓ events. The screen is sometimes split in two to show parallel action. Coincidence and repetition create a dense and cohesive narrative web.

    This movie has, according to Felix, Ïlittle shape, substance or subtlety.Ó Yet, I would argue, that the filmÌs major forte is just the opposite. Rather than being Ïnumbed senselessÓ by omnipresent violence, the precise and delicate unfolding of a complicated, inter-locking plot creates a sharp effect. Not to say that the escalating bloodbaths donÌt oppress and appall. They do, not the least since street violence is shown starting earlier and earlier. The teenage boys who were the principle perpetrators of the Seventies, who used guns mainly to intimidate, have mutated, thirty-odd years later, into illiterate Ïrunts,Ó seven to eleven year-olds who are psychopathic in their indifference to homicide Ò to whom murder is just another game. However the audience is not, as in many Hollywood films, invited to jubilate in this gratuitous violence. The shootings are horrific, each one shocking in its own way.

    Felix laments that Ïthe female parts are woefully few and underwritten.Ó And while I agree this is so, I do not think this a fault in the film, rather a fault in the society that it depicts. Women are even greater victims of violence than the men. Powerless, and for the most part silent, they are bludgeoned with spades and rocks, raped, and buried alive, both literally and metaphorically.

    City of God is not simply a one-note rant against poverty and violence, although these are depicted in harrowing detail. It is also a stunningly executed, joyful celebration of the possibility (however attenuated) of community, friendship, and fun Ò witness BennyÌs all-inclusive going-away party.

    Is this film didactic? I think not. It doesnÌt ask its viewers to take up social work in the favela. But what it does demand is to be seen. And for us, the audience, to see. Witnessing, even at a celluloid, or contact-sheet remove, is a start. ÏBoy becomes hood, dies: it’s a story we see over and over again, with the only differences in the details,Ó Felix writes. Yes, and this filmÌs resounding success, to my mind, are just these details.

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