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City of God Review

City of God depicts the culture within the Rio favelas, located fifteen miles from the ‘paradise’ of central Rio. It is based on an adaptation of Paulo Lins novel of the same name, and loosely depicts true events of the time, which operate from the 1960s, through until the early 80’s. These events function as a vehicle for the narrative of the main characters Rocket and Li’l Ze who drastically differ in aspirations despite being influenced by the same culture.

City of God uses flashbacks to recount micro stories from the narration of Rocket and the supporting characters, following proceeding years in the favelas and recounting the fates of these acquiesces. This use of flashback is key in building the crescendo of the macro story that acts as a cinematic pseudo-documentary of those who are impoverished and entrapped in the repetitive cycle of their surroundings. City of God can be seen as a social study which is documented with realism and entrenched in its characters. It demands attention throughout with the favela becoming a central figure, with just as much importance as its inhabitants, and how these trappings are fundamental in shaping those people. The shots flash resembling a camera shutter throughout favelas, where the mortality rate is high in light of the communal war zone the characters inhabit and drugs and violence are instilled at an early age.

One of the most compelling aspects of the film is how violence is manipulated to bring forth a reality with its selective graphic nature. Not over saturating the audience as a means to elicit the greatest emotional response, whilst still highlighting the importance of violence within the culture. This is achieved by raising the intensity as the film progresses, predominantly deployed as we follow Li’l Ze, providing a jarring portrayal of a sociopathic drug pusher who sits atop the favela crime hierarchy.

Similarly, there is a gradual rise in the violence of the landscape, highlighted by the distinct difference of the outlaw behaviour of modern day favelas with the favelas of the 60s. Beginning with the ‘Tender Trio’, a community that resembles more as a suburban internment camp than housing, with crime committed on behalf of the community and done under the premise of ‘good’, and then transitioning to the favelas becoming more intense and built up. The favelas then segregating themselves as a society that functions under its own laws and code, with crime used as a means to build and solidify the individuals’ status.

Additionally, the film is underscored by samba music, that creates a normality and party aspect. Using a contrasting score, the music serves to juxtapose the tragedy and violence onscreen by supplementing a carnival, party atmosphere.

This juxtaposition is also used with the seemingly ‘fun’ opening shot of a chicken being chased, stark against the image of youths carrying guns. This opening shot of the chicken opens and closes the film. Used in the beginning to introduce the opposing characters of Li’l Ze and Rocket, and then at the end to conclude the flashbacks and bring us back to the present. Furthermore, this shot also provides metaphysical connotations similar to those that occupy the favelas and wish to escape, how they end up chased and brutalised, escape is merely an implausible idea and not considered an option.

What I find startling, is that these are predominantly pre-pubescent children running ransack on a community, scaring its landscape in a quest for power and respect whilst toting guns as if they are little more than toys, fighting for supremacy to ascend the local hierarchal crime ladder, who fantasise of murder. Their world so imbued by violence and guns, could not be further than the western world. One of the many stand out moments in the film, is the murder of children at the hand of peer pressure. This is done with such cold disconnected way, from Li’l Ze that it provides one of the most shocking scenes and solidifies the ruthlessness of the favelas, uncompromising and unforgivable.

Within the engrained psyche of the favelas, contradictions do exist. However, these are found within the generation prior, where there are still some remains of moral and ethical expectations found in that of a more traditional society. Specifically, in Rocket, who wishes to escape the accepted norm through his passion of photography despite his sentiments that ‘Honesty doesn’t pay’. There are minor comedic forays into a failed attempt at crime, yet he prevails, as his dreams of a photographer come to fruition. However, this is at the expense of his surroundings and its internal war, a place that has caused even the most self-righteous of citizens, like Knockout Ned, to turn against their moral beliefs.

With even the morally intact surrendering into the violence, under the guise of vengeance only exasperating the problems. Thus proving that even the most upstanding are corrupted by the society they inhabit by proxy. This act of vengeance only fuels the death toll as the favelas resemble more of a war zone as the film builds to its finale with Rocket’s inflection

[w]hat should have been swift revenge turned into an all-out war. The City of God was divided. You couldn’t go from one section to the other, not even to visit a relative. The cops considered anyone living in the slum a hoodlum. People got used to living in Vietnam, and more and more volunteers signed up to die.[1]

City of God provides a startling portrayal of the Rio favelas and documents the reality of a culture that is moulded by its surroundings. It operates as a cinematic experience as well as a visual history, documenting the effects of a society marked by a degradation that is ingrained into each generation from an early age and raises a repetitive cycle that is disconnected from everything but its own insular existence.

[1] City of god, dir. by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund (, 2002)

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