City of God


posted to on July 23, 2004


I finally got around to seeing the Brazilian film "City of God," which was directed by TV commercial veteran Fernando Meirelles and that enjoyed a very long run in NYC theaters a year or so ago. As most people know, this film has been widely acclaimed by the critical establishment and was an Oscar nominee last year. I was prepared to see something akin to Hector Babenco's "Pixote" or Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados", but was disappointed to discover that the film had more in common with Quentin Tarentino. It is a highly aestheticized presentation of gang life in a Rio de Janiero favela (slum) named "City of God" that left me with a feeling of total revulsion for all the characters except Rocket, a denizen who escapes this world by dint of his passion for photography and his ineptitude at crime. It is through his eyes that a never-ending procession of sadism and inhumanity unfolds.


The main character is L'il Ze, a psychopathic gang leader who reminds me of the character Al Pacino played in "Scarface". Comparable in terms of his crude ambitions and talent for wiping out opponents, L'il Ze lacks Tony Montaña's raffish charm. While this characterization might be more realistic, it also makes for less interesting drama since a compelling villain remains the lynchpin for a successful work of art.


L'il Ze's chief lieutenant is Benny, who seeks to escape gang life and live a hippy existence on a farm (the film is set in the 60s and 70s.) Although he is intended to be a relatively more attractive character, I would be repelled by anybody in the position of henchman to L'il Ze. In one scene, Benny joins L'il Ze in punishing one of the "runts," a preteen youngster similar to Pixote who has been terrorizing shopkeepers under the gang's protection. They offer him the choice of a bullet in the hand or the foot. After they shoot him in the foot, he is ordered to walk--but not limp--away from them. They giggle hysterically as if they had given somebody a hot-foot.


There is zero interest in explaining the broader social and economic context for the gangster phenomenon. Although it is obvious that crime is a function of poverty, Meirelles shows scant interest in the military dictatorship which had crushed all hopes for economic improvement. Nor does he seem interested in showing how a slum like City of God might have emerged as a function of what Marxists call "primitive accumulation." When peasants are driven off their land and forced into crowded slums lacking all amenities and economic opportunity, no wonder their sons and daughters turn to drugs and crime.


In an interview with the online magazine Trópico, the director explained why he chose not to provide such a background:


Q: What were the major changes you made in adapting the book? [a reference to the nonfiction book the film was based on]


A: In the film, it's Buscapé ('Rocket' in the American subtitles) who tells the story, a kid who narrates how the outlaws came to be in the City of God, how they got starting dealing and wound up taking over the place. I was criticized for not showing the reason for all the violence, or the external factors affecting this story. But the fact is that the premise of my film is the viewpoint of the kid who narrates it.


If I wanted to present a sociological vision or explain the external factors of all that, this wouldn't be the same film. Not to mention the fact that it would make the film a dime a dozen. Everybody knows what the middle-class perspective on the subject is. Do we need a film to tell us that income distribution in Brazil is a disgrace?




I don't know. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I'd walk a mile for a sociological vision in a story such as this.