Meirelles and Lund’s City of God (2002) is an action-packed story about a poverty-stricken slum in Rio de Janeiro, as told by a young boy name Buscapé. The film is divided into three parts: The late 60s, the 70s, and early 80s, thus spanning a period of one and a half-decade, which saw a sprawling government housing project become an anarchic ghetto, shredded by gang wars and poisoned by drug trafficking. The particularity of this movie is that it uses the technique called in media res. It means that the story starts in the middle or close to the end. By moving back to almost the beginning of the story, the movie shows us the origins of the favela. We get to see how gangs are formed and perpetuated, how they function as a hierarchic system, how gang wars can start on the ground of something as simple as a gangster’s lack of self-confidence, and his rejection by a woman. It shreds the idea of police protecting all people. The reality is that, under capitalism, police often protects capital and power. The plot is driven by acts of physical violence. However, it insinuates the existence of structural violence that goes beyond what we are seeing on screen.
In Rio de Janeiro, approximately 1.5 million people are living in the favelas belting the city. 95 percent of these people are poor. Police corruption and brutality, rampant crime, institutional violence are parts of the daily lives of residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The situation has worsened in recent months as the military has taken over the gangs hunting. Institutional violence affects students’ performances in schools. Insecurity impedes the functioning of businesses and the possibility to retrieve an income from tourism. Moreover, at the time when the movie was released, the minimum wage was around $80. These poverty-inducing factors are what pull young people toward drug dealing. The mostly white people inhabiting the wealthy suburbs enjoy more security, while the predominantly black population of the favelas often fall victim to the state police. Becoming gangsters is both a way for the young boys living in the favelas to escape from the chains of poverty and to gain the sense of power that racism and institutional violence takes away from them.
The main theme of the movie is gangs’ violence as a societal order supported by the limited options available for young boys and the ineluctable poverty. It is a depiction of the raw and brutal reality. In the City of God, gangsters are recruited while still very young. One might be tempted to ask both silly and reasonable question: “Where are the parents?” Apart from the father of the narrator, in the beginning, we get no model of a conscious parent, trying to keep their sons away from gangster life. This is because the gangs are the only functioning institutions that those people know. They cannot rely on governments, education does not constitute a way out, nor is soccer (while the movie is set up in Brazil which is renowned for soccer, there is only one scene involving soccer). It does not last long as the characters are soon drawn to their violent way. Gangs’ leaders are the ones that people can turn to when they have been stolen, when they need protection. Thus, they create and enforce their laws. They offer to people a form of predictability on how things work. Sometimes, the wealth that they gain benefits others around them, either through parties or other projects. That is why real-life gangsters such as Pablo Escobar are still idolized and loved by some people. Thus, for some parents, seeing their sons going up in the gang hierarchy can constitute a valid achievement.
However, while it is relatively easy to get into the gangster life, it is much more difficult to get out of it, as demonstrated by the examples of Cabaleira and Benny. The life of a gangster is short but full of actions, which makes it attractive to young people. In City of God, boys can barely live long enough to become men. As it is the rule of nature, when the survival rate of young is low, the recruitment must be early and made at a high rate. Gangsters die but are quickly replaced. The last scene of the movie shows the new generation of gangsters, all little boys already carrying guns. They are all boys. It seems that a gang’s life is not for women. There are hardly any feminine characters in the movie. The ones that are there serve as love interests for male characters, their possible redemption, or their Achilles’ heel. All these correspond to traditional representations of women in gangster films.
The absence of close up shots in key scenes insinuates that our attention should not be focused on the particular character(s) but rather on the symbolism that they stand for. The predominance of medium and long shots aims to pose the favela itself as a character, arguably the most important character in this sequence. It is toward that place and its inhabitants that our sorrow must tend. The artistic form (fluidity of the steady cam, nostalgic music…) gives the effect of a wildlife National Geographic documentary. The filmmaker is simply recording events and interactions that he has no control over. Structural violence is implacable. Thus, there is a sense of fatalism in some sequences.
At the end of the day, the nature of the violence prevails over the victim. This pattern can be seen throughout the movie. One of the key scene that starts the movie is the death of Cabaleira, represeting the end of an era and the beginning of a darker one. The open physical space represents the hope of the residents of the favela to escape from the cycle of violence. The death of Cabaleira tells that there is no escape. Thus, from this moment on, the story depiction becomes enclosed in the restrained area inside the favela. Institutional violence does not just kill people; it kills hope. The golden light of the first part of the movie is sacrificed in favor of low light and cold blue that announce people’s acceptance of the new violent societal order.
Another marking sequence is the ritualistic initiation of a young boy into the gang. This sequence introduces a model of manhood, which is one that is deprived of morals or pity. The first time, we see the boy, he is smiling, his innocence still intact. When he is asked to kill a smaller child, his tormented face indicates his moral dilemma. We are tempted to think that his decision will determine his life. But does he truly have a choice? A refusal to obey would signify a death sentence for him. Violence shapes manhood and either by witnessing it like Buscapé or causing it, it is the only way into adult life.
Throughout the film, the filmmaker shies away from graphic depictions of violence. A visual strategy in the sequence discussed above, involving camera positioning and focus, artistically creates a psychological detachment of the viewer from the victim. It is constant in the all movie, quick editing and uncertain point of view impede the audience from fully observing the outcome of the violent actions. It also creates a morbid curiosity within the viewer who is eager to see more, thus giving him the unsettling feeling of being complicit and supportive of the violence.
The easiness with which human bodies are disposed of, the light-hearted approach toward violence, is disturbing and dehumanizing. Violence in the City of God does not bring the viewer to emotional purging because it remains unresolved. In that sense, the movie strays away from traditional gangster films such as The Godfather, which have glorified violence. In short, some movies have glamorized violence; some have denounced it, City of God’s particularity is that it dehumanized it, leaving room for the viewer to evaluate it at his discretion.
City of God does not fall into the trap of fantasizing the raw material of which it disposes of. It remains down-to-earth, from the documentary-style filming to the props and costumes. It is undeniably a gangster film but it allows itself to stretch away from certain conventions of the genre such as the physical display of wealth or the over displaying of blood and scars. Its portrait of the gang culture is not romantic or sensational for the sake of it but, instead, shows of the effects of such pervasive violence on communities, which have to experience it at first hand. Individuals are not dwelled upon because they are simply part of the implacable destruction path of the violence. Institutional and pervasive violence in that case. The characters’ role are defined by their power standing that is materialized from either the gun or the uniform. Finally, it is not the camera that dehumanizes those people but, instead, the everyday violence that they have to live through. It is, only, by gaining power that those occupying the bottom rungs of society become relevant to those above them. Thus, the favela is a microcosm of the whole country and the world itself.
“Rio Favela Facts”. 2020. Catalytic communities. Retrieved from: https://catcomm.org/favela-facts/. Consulted on June 11th 2020