Take anything you know about coming-of-age dramas, splice that with well-traveled gangster formulas, add a heaping load of social commentary and visual spectacle, and you are only getting close to what City of God has to offer.
When death stares you in the face, the obvious modes of response are fight or flight. A chicken at the start of City of God watches as his own kind are gutted and mutilated for the sake of the higher end of the food chain. Knowing the end is nigh, in what limited capacity a chicken is able, the bird bolts off the literal chopping block only to be pursued by gun wielding hoodlums down narrow streets as it is nearly struck by a police car. The bird’s exasperated attempt at survival leads him headlong into the unwitting clutches of our narrator and protagonist, Rocket. As the hoodlums close in, shouting at Rocket for assistance, the police roll up behind, sandwiching Rocket in the battle lines, as firearms are drawn on both sides. There is our storyteller, staring down death. What choice does he have? This is the beginning and the end of his life, but more important, it is the horror of his everyday.
Take anything you know about coming-of-age dramas, splice that with well-traveled gangster formulas, add a heaping load of social commentary and visual spectacle, and you are only getting close to what City of God has to offer. The initial scene of the chicken chase is an obvious, not too heavy-handed, analogy for the rest of the film, where choice is more powerful than any ammunition.
The triumph of this visceral and engaging film is not only the dynamic camerawork and script (by Braulio Mantovani, based on the novel by Paulo Lins, who lived in the favelas), but the ultimate believability of its many characters. Most of the children in the movie are from places like the City of God. The directors spent eight months working with the children to get them comfortable in front of a camera, and you can see their natural quality on the screen.
After the initial scene, which the movie loops back toward, we are immediately taken in time to Rocket’s childhood in the favela during the 1960s. The favela was a shantytown offered by the rich to keep the poor in their place and away from the tourists of Rio de Janeiro. The ironic name of the town is City of God, a profound jab at the absentee deity in this world of anarchy. It is there that a young Rocket learns from his hoodlum brother Goose, along with his small-time compatriots in the “Tender Trio,” that crime doesn’t pay and that the only road to salvation is through study.
Another younger generation denizen, Li’l Dice, follows their destructive path, and then some. Li’l Dice is involved in the downfall of the “Tender Trio’s” only big-time heist, and without revealing too much, he is the cause of the horrible fate of two out of three boys. The scene I am omitting is a chilling depiction of sociopathic mayhem, made all the more mesmerizing because the perpetrator is a giddy child. This child grows up to be the notorious Li’l Ze (the maniacal Leandor Firmino da Hora), whose early obsession with power and violence leads him to become the ruthless kingpin of the favela’s drug ring in the 1970s. He achieves this power by literally killing his competition and taking over their business. Corporate takeovers in the most bloody of senses, Li’l Ze’s violence begets more violence snowballing into a final all-out war.
In a city without heavenly order, the children play god. In the gangs of ’70s and ’80s-era Brazil every child with a hand is clutching a gun. They play with life and death the way American children play on a playground. Gangs of children pettily quench desires at the expense of others, only to incur violent retaliation from the bigger bullies who, no doubt, will get their comeuppance one day, from an even greater force.
The struggle for dominance amidst poverty and an over-saturated drug culture leads the children to believe they are men before their time. One child in Ze’s gang, Steak, comments that he has done all the things that qualify for “man-ness,” even the taking of lives. Steak is later involved in the most powerful kill-or-be-killed scene in film history, as Li’l Ze forces him to choose which small, cowering child he is to shoot in order to join his gang.
With all this talk about the nature of a man, one would think that women have been forgotten altogether. Though relegated to the sidelines, women are depicted as the only salvation for these men. They represent a more peaceful life––a gateway. Most of the time, this is never to be. Li’l Ze, the embodiment of blind and childish ambition, rapes a girl (off-screen) as an act of destroying the personification of beauty and hope.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is our moral center, and, as such, is never involved in the perpetration of violence. We see him as the pacifist photographer, taking pictures where other journalists wouldn’t dare to tread. This is his life he is documenting, and through the camera he gains power. In fact, his salvation comes from the final “shot” of Li’l Ze. Although Rocket uses film, not bullets, he too fits in with the plot arc of dominance-through-decimation. One can only advance at the expense of another. The conscious choices we make everyday to destroy another (to loosely quote Brian Cox in Adaptation) keep us alive and propel our individual ambitions. You can either ride this unjust system to the top or drop out altogether. Here are your choices: fight or flight. This is life. True for gangland Brazil, true for corporate America.
Cidade de Deus (City of God)
Portuguese with English subtitles
Directors: Katia Lund, Fernando Meirelle
Release 2002, American 2003