WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘City of God.’
Stylish, compelling, and hugely entertaining, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (Cidade de Deus) also has a serious point to make.
Told from the perspective of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), an aspiring photographer, it is a movie about one of Brazil’s most notorious and impoverished favelas, the Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro, and how organised crime there corrupted, and, in many cases, destroyed its local youth. Yet Meirelles does not lecture his audience.
Instead, he uses every stylistic trick in the cinematic book, from inventive montages to adventurous camera work, to ensure the story is vividly and energetically realised, and engages the audience with the human tragedy. In one scene, a gang of children walks through the favela, joking about taking over the slum and the people they would need to kill in the process. It is darkly humorous but also horrifying to see children bred into violence from so young an age.
Most of the movie’s actors were inhabitants of the favelas portrayed in the movie. Several went on to appear in Meirelles’ sequel, City of Men.
The majority of the cast for City of God were not professional actors. As the director explained, at the time there simply were not enough black actors in Brazil to make this kind of movie. Two years before filming, Meirelles set up a workshop in the favela to train a group of around 100 amateur actors. The cast of City of God was drawn from this pool of talent. Over the course of several months, they developed scripts through improvisation sessions. The social commitment continued after filming ended as the actors received ongoing help to build new lives for themselves.
The Rise of Lil Ze
The movie’s action is played out at an ambitious scale. Its story spans more than a decade and charts the experience of growing to adulthood in the City of God. To achieve this, Meirelles did not bind himself to the narrative constraints of one person’s story. The movie does have a central character in Rocket, but he is a photographer, an observer who acts as an audience surrogate, involved but not involved, there to witness the events in the City of God as they occur. The movie clarifies this intention with its use of voice-over, as Rocket summarizes the favela’s defining moments, from the downfall of the Tender Trio in the late 1960s, to the rise of Lil Zé as a gang leader in the early 1980s. Rocket observes everything as characters flourish and die, as high-rise buildings rise and cartels fall.
The use of voice-over also allows for bolder visual techniques, such as montages that enable a faster passage of time, as well as the opportunity for more stylistic experimentation. The movie shifts its focus from one central protagonist to another, taking turns telling their stories. It takes up the tales of Shaggy, the leader of the Tender Trio, Benny, the pacifist friend of Li’l Zé, and Knockout Ned, a working man dragged into gang warfare after his family is attacked. With these switching perspectives, Meirelles turns the favela itself into the central character, with other characters entering only when they matter to the overall story of the slum.
One City, One Fate
One of the main themes Meirelles explores is the favela’s corrosive effect on everyone it touches. The violence it spawns does not simply stay among the criminals, but rather is all consuming and perpetuates a culture of suffering for all the inhabitants. Meirelles presents the City of God as an entity in itself, a place that allows the wicked to thrive and the innocent to perish. This is demonstrated starkly in the movie’s opening sequence, in which two chickens are about to be plucked and cooked by Li’l Zé’s gang. A knife flashes as it is sharpened against a rock. One chicken flinches as the other is killed, and makes a break for it, but there is no escape.
When Knockout Ned tries to draw a line between being a hoodlum and his noble vigilante mission against Li’l Zé, the City of God intervenes, just as it does when Shaggy tries to flee the criminal life in the name of love, or when Benny decides that he’s too good a person to be a gangster. Each time a character gives in to their better nature, that character is punished. They are protagonists in their own Greek tragedies, with the city in the role of Fate.
Ethics, Lies & Newspapers
City of God is a gangster story, an impassioned piece of social commentary, and an ambitious work of visual cinema. Rocket’s role as a photographer also allows the movie to touch upon the ethics of journalism in a war zone, or in this case, the act of dramatising very real problems of poverty and violence. This is highlighted when Rocket confronts a newspaper for publishing without his permission the pictures he took of Li’l Zé.
Rocket is sure that this has placed his life in danger, but from the paper’s perspective, the story comes first. As it turns out, Li’l Zé is delighted by the publicity, and his battle with Knockout Ned is played out in full media glare. The newspaper staff manipulate Rocket into taking more pictures in the war zones of the City of God, and the tensions between the desire to highlight social problems to sell papers and compassion for those involved in the stories told to do so are never totally resolved.