City of God: angels with dirty faces

City of God is a gangster movie with real-life edge acted out by Brazilian street children for whom guns and drugs are the everyday, said this 2003 feature.

21 February 2024

By Ismail Xavier

City of God (2002)
Sight and Sound

Released in Brazil in September [2002], Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s City of God (Cidade de Deus) has become a smash hit. Seen by more than 2 million Brazilians in its first two months, it has received an overwhelming amount of press coverage and triggered heated debates among critics and intellectuals. In short, it has become a social event. Why?

Undoubtedly part of its impact is due to its subject matter – the street gangs formed by desperately poor children and teenagers to deal in drugs and violence. Brazilians confront unsafe streets and growing territories controlled by organised crime every day and the country is permeated by a sense of fear and widespread obsession with violence. But other works touching on the same themes have met with a less spectacular response.

City of God is a hit because of the way the situation is represented – as the basis for an action film that’s set within the realm of ‘real life’ rather than the usual stylised fantasy of blood, metal and pyrotechnics. It’s a film that deals with social concerns, but expresses them in the language of the MTV, rap and disco cultures familiar to young people of the same age as its protagonists. It’s this style that has made City of God the most successful Brazilian attempt since the mid 1990s to render social drama palatable to a mass audience.

The disturbing combination of violence and organised crime and children – familiar in Brazilian cinema at least since Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981) is here confined to a single favela or shantytown where disputes involving territory and power create chains of revenge that fuel an ever-growing wave of violence. The fate of the characters is mostly tragic, except for one boy who manages to escape from the circle of hell. It’s no accident that Buscape, nicknamed Rocket, is the narrator: taking on board the realpolitik of the NGOs which work with young people from the favelas, he refuses to engage in the gang wars, substituting a camera for a gun, culture for violence.

The area of Rio de Janeiro known as City of God is a huge housing complex created in the 1960s as part of a conservative programme to eradicate the favelas on hillsides close to the fancy beaches by forcibly relocating their thousands of inhabitants to the periphery. This is what Rocket tells us in one of his first voiceovers at the start of a long flashback that describes the origins of a young gang known as the Tender Trio: Shaggy/Cabeleira, Clipper/Alicate and Goose/Marreco. The film examines the escalation of violence from the ‘innocent’ robberies performed by these inexperienced amateurs in the 1960s to the organised cocaine wars of the mid 1970s to which the survivors graduate. It covers of lot of ground and sometimes pays a price – for instance, as an action film it omits any explanation of the overall logic of the international drugs trade, concentrating instead on the most visible side of the game: the scandalous death of children involved in illegal trafficking and the intimidation of members of the local community.

City of God (2002)

Many of the events selected from true-life stories provide intensely dramatic material which is skilfully developed in Braulio Mantovani’s screenplay and wonderfully performed by an impressive number of non-professional actors. The social issues are complex, but the film focuses instead on those aspects of people’s experience that make for gripping visual drama in a classical sense, feeding our fascination and fear with convincing representations of incidents that would be unbearable in real life. Its power depends on its credibility, which is enhanced by the performances of amateurs with unknown faces. These ‘actors’ have set a new standard of verisimilitude in Brazilian cinema that lays down a challenge to similar future projects.

The children and teenagers were selected largely from Rio’s favelas (some came from theatre group Nós do morro/We from the hillside) and were trained by Fátima Toledo and Katia Lund for a year. Thus in its espousal of the idea of ‘rescue through culture’, the film’s production became part of the very process it takes as its theme. The rhetoric of authenticity culminates in the final images from a television news programme in which the real Knockout Ned/Mané Galinha, the last of the main characters to come on the scene, is interviewed in jail. But the neorealism is combined with a sense of the image as artifice, the narrative as a fast-moving train of emotions conveyed through elaborate fast edits and computer-created effects (tellingly, Meirelles’ background is as a director of commercials).

The emphasis on rhythm is apparent in the opening sequence where we jump from the Rabelaisian atmosphere of a popular banquet and the seductive sound of samba to a harsh confrontation between the bandits and the police. This is the late 1970s, when the warfare had escalated to an unprecedented level, and a shot/counter-shot sequence shows the two opposing armies facing each other, their guns at the ready. Right in the middle is Rocket. This image was used on the poster to convey the film’s promise of an insider’s view, the direct experience of a reality already known in its overall shape but never shown from the position of our narrator. And Rocket here also functions as a metaphor for the vulnerability of the wider community caught in the crossfire or figuring as possible targets.

In João Moreira Salles and Katia Lund’s 1998 documentary News from a Particular War (Notícias de una guerra particular) the irreconcilable viewpoints of the bandits, the police and those caught in between became an element in the structure. At one point a woman from a shantytown describes her feelings of helplessness and characterises the teenagers as suicide-seekers who have lost all sense of self-protection. Meirelles and Lund used as their major source Paulo Lins’ autobiographical novel City of God. Since its publication in 1997, Lins has become something of an authority, consulted by filmmakers from João Salles to Carlos Diegues (Orfeu, 1999). But nobody before Meirelles had tried to translate to the screen his 550-page account of the early experiences he shared with many friends who are now dead. Lins’ book is largely a straightforward record of his youth, its impact springing from the sheer number of tragic real-life stories he tells. The picture drawn is even more shocking than that shown on screen since here the filmmakers narrowed down the plot to those episodes lived by Shaggy, Rocket’s brother, Beny/Bené, Knockout Ned, Li’l Ze/Zé Pequeño and Carrot/Sandra Cenoura (a white bandit played by the only well-known professional actor). Each character embodies a typical life story and sets a specific tone.

Rocket represents the most optimistic side of the story and achieves a relatively happy ending. Li’l Ze embodies the most tragic side – he starts as Li’l Dice/Dadinho, a child filled with a seemingly unmotivated hatred whose gratuitous violence gives rise to the most shocking scene from the childhood stage of the drama. Later, re-emerging as Li’l Ze, he demonstrates a readiness to kill that goes beyond pragmatism, his victim a scapegoat chosen at random to satisfy his unfocused urge for revenge. From beginning to end he’s the incarnation of lack of measure, of tragic hubris. Beny, his buddy and partner, is the figure of conciliation and compromise, the hedonist who surprises the audience with his good humour and ironic consumerism. Like Rocket he can laugh at himself (“I became a playboy”). For Rocket Beny is the person who takes away his pleasure (conquering the girl he loves) whereas Li’l Ze takes his brother’s life. But he can’t commit himself to revenge, partly out of fear but also because he’s able to stand back and acknowledge his limits. Fear and good humour save him from joining in the frenetic action that fills the lives of the other boys.

City of God (2002)

The film’s restless urgency makes it difficult to relate what’s on screen to a wider context. Some critics have objected to what they describe as the MTV “effectism” of the narration, but spectators obviously feel moved and take the images as the ‘real thing’. Special effects, manipulation of speed and computer graphics haven’t hindered audiences’ recognition of the authenticity of the events shown. Obviously we no longer identify such effects purely with superficial drama and voyeuristic pleasure.

City of God is not fun. At one point, as Li’l Ze takes revenge on a rival group, he forces a little boy to decide which of his friends he will be made to kill and two others to choose between being shot in the hands or the feet. The boys under pressure end up crying, their denied childhood emerging on faces otherwise trained to look tough. The scene is long, so we have time to process our emotions, and the effect is a mix of catharsis and identification.

The tension is almost constant, with intermittent moments of relief provided by Beny or by comic incidents involving Rocket. His fragile voice helps the audience to assimilate the shock of what they’re seeing and he becomes a filter for questions of interpretation. In theory – since he acts as our mediator – the meanings we take from the film should be confined to his perceptions, but films, even when they employ such figures, often say more than their characters do. Here the voiceover functions as much to solve structural problems of condensation of information as to offer an ultimate source of meaning.

Rocket cannot be taken as expressing Lins’ experience since his book refuses the idea of a surrogate conscience embodied in a first-person narrator. Rather he is a metaphor for the film’s directors, especially in his acknowledgement at the end that he can’t give the most revealing picture he’s shot to the press. City of God too has had to adjust its viewpoint and tone in order to play to a mass audience, setting aside a balanced picture of the community and a clear sense of context. But the drama’s focus on action, and the outstanding screenplay and mise en scene, instead expose the very texture of an experience that’s invariably obscured in television news.

The film reveals the role played by the fabric of emotions spun from intense, frustrated desire. By bringing to the fore the resentment that lurks beneath such shocking forms of aggression, it gives powerful expression to the feelings of class and racial disenfranchisement that create a subjectivity under siege in a society swamped by images of glamour and sex appeal and a rhetoric of advertising intent on the exploitation of mimetic desire. It’s a rhetoric that gives elegant new forms to old associations of aggressive virility, the accumulation of goods and power. Young people’s expectations are shaped in daily contact with a vision of consumption way beyond their reach. With legitimate work barely an option, is it surprising they’re seduced by the promise of easy money, self-affirmation and a prestigious image in the community, trading their future (what future?) for a brief life in power?

Many Brazilian films have dealt with domestic or public violence and focused on resentful characters whose social impotence is translated into acts of random aggression. And the child protagonists place City of God within a tradition that turns to children as the last emblematic pillars of humanity. But City of God reworks these figures in a spectacular way. Tensions explode and resentment is converted into an exhibition of power. City of God adds a new piece to the mosaic of violence composed by recent Brazilian cinema. It adds up to a picture of a consumerist society of scandalous social inequality.