City of God | Digital Traditions

by Evan Comen. Comen is an Economics major in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This review was written for the Spring 2012 class "Folklore and Film."

In his award-winning 2002 film City of God, director Fernando Meirelles adapts the regrettably true semi-autobiographical novel of the same name to the screen, forcing the audience to accompany him on a tragic journey through the favela (shanty town) of Cidade de Deus (City of God), a decrepit suburb of Rio de Janeiro. City of God chronicles the rise of organized crime in Cidade de Deus from the 1960s to the 80s through a cast of interrelated characters, all revolving about one central narrator. The film continues a unique ethnographic docu-fiction style termed ethnofiction, said to be pioneered by established ethnologist Jean Rouch (Sjöberg). Much of the film’s power is derived from the characteristic elements of ethnofiction within it, as well as the characteristics of certain historical movements in film considered to have influenced the enthnofictitious style.

At the end of World War II and Benito Mussolini’s reign, Italy was left in a state of economic disgrace. In accordance with this, the sub-genre of Italian neorealism emerged to depict the lowly state of everyday life (Ratner). Features common in this style were the use of nonprofessional actors, filming on location, and topical concerns of the lives of the impoverished (Ratner), all of which are employed in the film. Italian neorealism directly influenced the French New Wave, of which Jean Rouch (the father of ethnofiction) was hailed as being a credible member (Neupert). Thus, ethnofiction was born of a compassion for the penniless, of which director Meirelles utilizes for the success of the film.

The film uses a chronological structure similar to that of Forrest Gump. It begins, in present day, with the central character, Rocket, literally standing at a crossroads between the pointed guns of the Brazilian authorities and those of the Cidade de Deus gangsters. The scene, aided by Rocket’s narration, then digresses to an earlier time in the city and in Rocket’s life. The bulk of the film then deals with the progression of events leading from this moment to the deadly standoff that Rocket is found caught between. A complex series of intermingled characters, all connected to Rocket through whatever contrived relation, tells the story of the upsurge of crime lords in Cidade de Deus and ultimately leads us back to the present day predicament Rocket finds himself in. The situation is then resolved, happily as Rocket is able to eventually leave town, and ever-after follows.

Living up to the sub-genre of which it belongs, the story of City of God is dependent on being performed as an ethnofiction. Meirelles treats the favela as an isolated microcosm and takes an ethnographic eye to its denizens. He presents the community as one folk group and uses this perspective to accomplish his ultimate goal; to establish awareness of such impoverished peoples and instill hope in and for its members. Judging by the bittersweet streams fighting their way out of my tear ducts, Meirelles fundamentally succeeds.

On an average day for a Cidade de Deus youth, one encounters “groovies,” “runts,” “hoods,” “workers,” and many other locally distinct, slang-termed groups. “Groovies” were of course the Cidade de Deus manifestations of the marijuana-smoking culture movement of the 1970s. “Runts” were the groups of young children who committed opportunistic petty crimes, aided by a lack of police in the favela, ultimately aided by the massive presence and control by organized crime. “Hoods” were those citizens of the town who turned to the world of crime, unlike their counterparts, “workers,” who, with perceived pusillanimous notions, entered the working world of legitimacy. Many different slang terms are used for various drugs as well. The heavy use of slang shows a distinct ethnographic picture of the community and the content of the slang shows the values of it. Organized crime is so common that the nonchalant term “hood” is simply enough to encompass the tactlessly non-taboo lifestyle of the criminals. The distinction of “worker” further exemplifies the regularity of crime, as decisions to become either a “worker” or a “hood” are presented as equal alternatives in the occupational dichotomy of Cidade de Deus. The nomenclature of “groovies” and “runts” strengthens the borders of the microcosm inwhich the community exists. This jargon turns Cidade de Deus into its own universe, with no help from the unfamiliar outside. It is this dangerous and barred setting that makes Rocket’s triumph to succeed and leave Cidade de Deus so fantastic.

The worryingly folkloric world of Cidade de Deus is further exemplified through a continued analysis of the slum’s structure. At a young age, the “runts” spread word of the daunting realm of which they are beginning to enter to one another. They swap stories about how the drug world operates and vainly attempt to figure out how to shoot a gun. Upon chance interactions with hardened criminals, they are taught how to work a gun and rob a store. When the “runts” are given guns, the guns functionally become extensions of their arms. Everyone has a constant firearm in hand, and makes no conservative efforts to save their ammunition. Shots are continuously and relentlessly fired to kill, to injure, to threaten, and even to communicate. My estimate for the sentence-to-gunshot ratio heard in City of God would have to be about 1:1. Meirelles desensitizes his audience throughout the entire film to the harsh gunshots through their ridiculous frequency. Even in the first scene, children are seen chasing a chicken through the streets, firing bullets at it on whim. This downplay of the characteristic stigma associated with guns is yet another clue to the desperate situation in Cidade de Deus.

Other features of the slum make apparent the condition of the favela. The values of the shanty town are an important component of Cidade de Deus’s character, and certain features of the film make these values evident. The majority of characters have nicknames, which, in the film, operate as their only names. Nicknames such as Rocket, Carrot, Shaggy, Stringy, Melonhead, Clipper, and Goose devalue the life of the characters they represent. In necrology, “Sandro Cenoura (the legal name of the character ‘Carrot’) is dead” carries a lot more weight than “Carrot is dead”. Life is further devalued through the film in its portrayal of death. During many death scenes, rather than an appropriate, gloomy soundtrack being played in the background, cheery, cumbersome music is heard. This feature of the film is strengthened through the appallingly numerous deaths within it. In a particular scene, Rocket narrates the history of a certain apartment as a drug-dealing hub. It is filled with death, and portrays deaths by an unemotional fade-away of the images of killed-off characters. The untheatrical, casual nature of death and nicknames in the film makes an overall statement about life in the slum; it is insignificant.

I believe the true form of the story of the film is an objective documentary in the cinéma vérité (1) style of Jean Rouch. This, obviously however, is impossible, as the story spans about 20 years and interest in the film’s production couldn’t have developed until after the 1997 release of the novel of the same name. Meirelles attempts to overcome this inability of documentative accuracy through the aforementioned untheatrical nature of the film. Nothing is imposed in City of God. The film flows naturally, and the characters are arbitrary besides their relation to the city’s rise of crime. Rocket is barely a main character in the sense that he is only focused on because he can provide links and explanation to the rise of organized crime in Cidade de Deus and offer an objective perspective on the matter. In the film, Rocket develops a passion for photography. Often times throughout the film, the audience actually sees through his camera. Rocket is used as a device to accomplish some aspects of the cinéma vérité style. We see through him and his camera an objective view of life in Cidade de Deus, and use the context gathered from the rest of the film to asses this view. Even his narration, when taken out of context, can be heard as answers to a forlorn interview. As stated earlier, events such as death are downplayed in the by an ironically cheery soundtrack. This is ultimately to offset the unavoidable nature of the film; that it was acted. Meirelles tries relentlessly to provide a matter-of-fact view of death. He also further continues the attempt at the cinéma vérité style by borrowing elements of Italian neorealism, the precursor to the French New Wave, which produced Jean Rouch, who produced cinéma vérité. Meirelles used non-professional actors, and never gave them a script. He merely told each actor the intentions of characters involved in each scene and they would improvise their lines (Gonzalez). This ultimately gave the film a much realer, objective feel. He shot on location (, obviously providing the film with an authentic setting. Meirelles also made sure to tell the story of the impoverished citizens, not the outsiders’ perception of them. He was aware that he came from a “middle-class point of view” (Gonzalez) and was resolute in portraying the most important point of view; that of the residents of Cidade de Deus. He accomplishes this by doing just that. City of God concerns only those within its borders. At one point a local news station is shown, only to reveal that they have no access to Cidade de Deus. The film focuses solely on the poor conditions within the favela through its residents. It documents every pain and hardship by providing an up-close and personal view of them. All of these attributes of the ethnofiction film contribute to an attempt at the appropriate cinéma vérité style, ideal for the tragic story of City of God.

In this review I have referred to the despondent lifestyle of the residents of Cidade de Deus and the notorious rise of organized crime within it without expanding on the actual, empirical content of the film. I should break this convention, as the events in the film further the important understanding of City of God. In Cidade de Deus, Li’l Zé is the reigning crime lord1. We are introduced to his soon-to-be rival, Knockout Ned, via Rocket’s encounter with him. Rocket, embodying a certain theme present in the film, naively gets on a bus with a gun in his pocket and a need for money. The theme he is embodying is that anyone in Cidade de Deus may turn to crime. After the bus attendant, Knockout Ned, coolly lets Rocket ride for free and displays his noble persona, Rocket realizes he is too innocent to rob somebody as decent as Ned. [1]This is the first time the audience meets Ned. The second time is in a less sentimental context, and continues the theme of anybody having the capacity to turn to crime. After a bout of frustration at a town social function, Li’l Zé rapes Knockout Ned’s wife and kills his uncle and brother. These were random victims, as Knockout Ned was a “worker” and had never dabbled in the “hood” world. Seeking revenge, Ned, who has the lethal services (from experience in special forces) necessary to assassinate Li’l Zé, partners with Li’l Zé’s rival crime-lord, Carrot. A total war ensues and engulfs all of Cidade de Deus. Everyone in the city is involved in the conflict and each citizen is forced to take a side. Its arguably most righteous member, Knockout Ned, is transformed from peaceful samaritan to violent crime-lord. It is in this circumstance that Rocket uses his interest in photography as, finally, a means out of the hellhole Cidade de Deus has become. This total war, and Rocket’s liberating flight from it represent the two notions of Cidade de Deus, and of all impoverished peoples across the globe, that Meirelles used City of God to promote. The film increases the awareness of the deplorable conditions and existence of favelas such as Cidade de Deus, and, through Rocket’s story, optimistically extends hope to their residents.

            One, final point of interest in the film lies in its phenomenal camerawork. Meirelles often uses a handheld camera, split screens, 360-degree shots, and extremely complex, long takes, bombarding the audience with intensity and ultimately adding to the perceived authenticity of the film. He also makes frequent use of the jump cut, a technique pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard, a prominent member of the French New Wave (Nottingham). This unique blend of cinematic modus operandi is essential for the goal and feel of the film.

            Meirelles takes his audience through an important struggle, yet concurrently entertains. City of God is a crucial film in the realm of social action and of pure cinematic brilliance. Its message is bittersweet, and has an undying permanence in recent history. There is a tale of hope for an imperfect world, and its name is City of God.   


1 For a folkloric side-note, the audience is shown  Li’l Zé’s transformation to crime-lord in a very ritual procedure, where he is granted a ceremonial amulet in a silent, candlelit room by a sagely old man.