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
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
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.