The tagline for City of God is captivating for those uninitiated, but a loaded statement to reflect upon after viewing.
“If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay,the beast eats you”
the tag iterates how fated circumstances constructed by environment and attitude will inevitable cause demise. The chicken that darts across the streets helplessly avoiding the traffic is meant to mirror Rocket and even in a larger sense all the youth that resides in Cidade de Deus. The film follows an anthology of stories within the city of the troubled youth, and the violence that plagues the city in many different varieties. Joanne Laurier on the WSWS raises the point in how Fernando Meirelles and Kaitia Lund“romanticize the camaraderie” of the gangs that wage wars on the streets. Inpart I agree there is a sense of sentimentality to the story, maybe a correct incorporation of Paulo Lins’ nostalgia for his home. City of God plays as a coming of age story of rivaling factions with: charismatic figures, brotherly bonds, and raw emotions making it not much different than West Side Story or The Outsiders.
However, while the hyper-stylized, energetic packaging of the film hints of a fun environment, the idea of this film “romanticizing” the city is not too agreeable. In the coming-of-age gang movies a lack of parental figures or guidance is common, but how the lack of supervision or mentoring effects the cast of the film is a huge factor. In many cases a story like this,lacking adult figures would function in a way to demonstrate how the adversity suffered, and the moral dilemmas confronted has hardened the children of the Cidade de Deus causing them to mature for better or worse. Instead of maturing,every character seems to suffer through a perpetual state of boyhood, failing to really grow up before their time has come. This state of immaturity is inherited, as with the lack of parental figures, the role models and idols of the youth come from the older gangs before them. The film’s opening tale begins with the Tender Trio who seem well-respected from the younger children and even took Li’l Dice under their wing. Lil Ze then also serves to continue the cycle,arming the Runts who ultimately gun him down to complete the succession of power. The beast that is referred to in the tagline is essentially the corruption of the city; running from the city and the scars follow you out or remain in the city and wait for your sins to come back and bite you.
The question of the corrupt city is how does one survive it? The Tender Trio attempted a getaway, Knockout Ned tried to live peacefully,Li’l Ze tried to rule an empire, and Benny tried to make enough money to earn an honest life and all meet with an untimely demise. The survivor of these tales, Rocket seems to maintain a philosophy of keeping his head down low, and to never get too ambitious. Rocket internship at the newspaper eventually becomes his ticket out of the city, but it also comes at a cost. Rocket makes the choice to publish the photo of Li’l Ze and in doing so further romanticizes the legacy of a gang leader and enables the police corruption to continue to plague the city. While like his earlier picture, Rocket fears the consequence of his photography making him a target, he still becomes morally compromised by his unwillingness to act in a way that could change the status quo of the city.
As a film, City of God is one of the most unique in terms of the presentation through editing and cinematography. Part of why City of God might come across as a “romanticized” version of an ugly subject is the way it comes together:
“swish and stunning aesthetic – the handheld cameras, the lighting and the dynamic editing – was largely credited to Meirelles’ experience as one of Brazil’s top advertising directors”Alex Bellos, The Guardian
While the style can feel that it’s an attempt to advertise and energize the subject matter or the content of the film it does serve dividends to the accomplishment of the film. City of God constructs a paradigm in presentation that reminds us both of the rawness of the film while also reminding us that it is fictional.The settings and overexposed natural lighting are examples of the gritty rawness that gives authenticity to each frame of the film. If creating a sense of genuineness was the solo intent of the film, then 360-degree spins that send characters into decades ago flashbacks then seems counterproductive. Meirelles’ spectacle works, because it reinforces to the audience that their comprehension of the atrocities that occurred in the Cidade de Deus is fiction. The depiction of violence and hardship in City of God is tough to sit through but the severity of it cannot be achieved unless you’ve actually experienced and witness such an environment.
The most poignant scene in the film is when Li’l Ze is gun downed by the runts sending a strong message on obtaining power within the Cidade de Deus. Li’l Ze’s reign over the city is meant to be seen as an empire, and his death is similar in fashion to Julius Caesar tragic demise at the hands of his own state. Li’l Ze armed the runts which becomes a decision that cements how his absolute power has corrupted his judgement. Essentially, Lil Ze lights the match that causes the fire that burns not only himself, but the city as a whole. The Runts prove how the city breeds not only a continuation of the gang violence, but an escalation. The perpetrators of gang violence cause the suffering, the drug dealers fuel it, and even those like Rocket and other resides are complicate by not advocating for change. The runts are a product of the city, their exposure to the violence has desensitized them and instead of waging others’ wars, there first taste of power immediately causes them to lust for more.
However, a major part of the way the city operates is based on the principle of punching up. When two runts are being chosen between in order for an initiate to prove his loyalty, the one who survives the sacrifice is the more distressed, crying boy. Instead of sending the message that only the strong will survive, the film sends another message that can be interpreted as revenge runs deep. The tagline may refer to the primary motive of seeking revenge as the beast that makes monsters out of the city’s residences. For starters, Stephen Hunter iterates how “Li’l Ze is such a monster: Unattractive and unsure of himself around women, he’s got fiery resentment blazing for anyone luckier with them — that is, fiery resentment against everyone”. Knockout Ned is dragged into the gang wars when trying to seek revenge against those who have wronged him and perishes as part of someone else’s revenge plot. The reason Rocket avoids the harsh violence of the city, is when he is presented with an opportunity to enact revenge he decides against it. Rocket exists in a vacuum of violence, one that brutally demonstrates how an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, which makes his role as photography interesting as he essentially shares his gift of vision.
Violence and Power
Violence is used as a succession of power, that in order to assert masculine dominance, violence is the tool to do so. There is some parallel between how Li’l Ze felt keeping watch and how the runts do fighting in the gang war. Frustration of practically being a pawn in someone else’s game of chess leads to the revolution that watches one empire rise, and the fall of another. However, for someone who so desperately wants the recognition and the fame that comes with being on top, it’s interesting to consider why Li’l Ze changed his name from Li’l Dice. Inpart, the name change could be to separate Li’l Dice’s existence as a child and as a beta and transform into Li’l Ze the man who runs the streets. Li’l Dice’s transformation comes from a juvenile outlook on the world. There was a sense of embarrassment that came with doing the unglamorous work for the Tender Trio so as an immature reaction he overcompensated and decided to prove himself morehardcore by murdering the people in the motel. With the new moniker, Li’l Zestill is “little” proving that there is a sense of stunted growth, despite becoming a man and achieving masculine dominance he still remains a little boy with big aspirations.
Rocket serves as a unique main character, he is not the most prominent figure in most of the tales within the story, but his role is undoubtable vital. First, I think Rocket serves as a surrogate for the audience, his lack of participation puts him on a similar level as the viewer being just a bystander witnessing the chaos. A lot of the heart comes through how the audience can associate themselves with Rocket caught up in the madness around him but wanting to escape with a peaceful and satisfying conclusion. Where the audience might have a tough time associating with a power-hungry sociopath or immoral drug dealers, Rocket is the humanity that the others lack. Rocket’s perspective also serves as an unbiased outlook but still a reliable perspective. Rocket is perfectly captured in the scene of someone who is caught up in the middle of all the gang feuds, not taking sides and by not seeking revenge with Li’l Ze and taking his photo shows no animosity towards any side. However, Rocket appears in each one of these stories displaying a great authority to understand who these characters are and how heinous their actions truly are. Finally, there is some toxic masculinity angle which emphasizes each character’s desire to boast some exterior appearance of manhood and power. This is why Rocket is the man behind the camera, he has no desire to project such an image. In fact, he is the man behind the camera because he wishes not to create an image of toughness but find the beauty that exists beyond the first outlook. Rocket tells the stories of the City of God because he does find something captivatingly beautiful about the place where he grew up, despite the atrocities, violence, and poverty that affected them all,and with little change in site.
Main image is from City of God (2002) credit: Miramax