While we live in pessimistic times and as Americans tend to view the world solipsistically, this movie from the slums (favelas) of Brazil, offers an experience of subcultural brutality and a parallel society that evolves when the mainstream does not pay attention or care.
While the focus is on the danger lurking as a corona over the mountains looking down on the pristine beaches (Copacabana, Le Blon, and Ipanema) of Rio de Janeiro, with the gigantic Jesus seemingly supervising from Corcavado, the same favelas surround the larger Brazilian city of Sao Paulo.
The irony of the title and the abject absence of God or anything good in these favela societies, which do not value life or its children, underscore the amorality on the edge of paradise in population-teaming Brazil.
Perhaps the movie will caution some to avoid Brazil as a tourist or vacation destination. It reminds me of my first visit to Johannesburg, South Africa, when I asked my keepers about Soweto and the possibility of visiting it. They replied: “Why would you want to go there?”
This movie may leave Western civilized audiences with some of that wish to close one's eyes or avoid what is unpleasant.
Just Beneath Surface of Gentility
In many ways the value of the movie is that it calls attention to what lurks just beneath the surface of gentility in all smoldering cities—if allowed brute forces might erupt like a volcano.
If this were a movie about gang violence in Chicago or LA, perhaps it would be a little too close for comfort, but since it is about Brazil, most of us can emotionally distance ourselves — this could happen there, but never here.
Similarly, we could distance ourselves from the violence of Gangs of New York's violence because the people were so uneducated and primitive. And the most chilling scene from The Pianist, where 10 men are asked to lie face down at the end of a day's hard labor, and an SS officer wantonly puts a bullet into each man's head. But this brutality cannot happen today; we are all too civilized. Right.
Memoir of Young Newspaper Photographer
City of God unfolds as a memoir of a young Brazilian newspaper photographer, Rocket, chasing a chicken into what turns out to be a crossfire between a gang and the police. He sees a boyhood friend who has become a drug-lord and de facto ruler of the favela.
In order for us to understand, he says, we must return to the beginning, and the scene melts into a different time and place with a seemingly new housing project and a boy's football game.
The movie is shot with a hand-held camera, giving the first person, you-are-there experience at the expense of the hurky-jerky sequences. The boys learn too quickly and avidly that crime pays—from robbing propane gas trucks to petty holdups.
But drugs and their sales are the common route to power and status, with the gangs substituting for family and social structure.
One of the boy's brothers is gunned down and dies a slow agonizing death on the street. The “tender trio” all are boys wanting to achieve status when the plan is to rob a bordello. “Li'l Ze” is posted as a watchman and instructed to fire a warning shot should the police arrive.
With the heist nearly successful, chaos breaks out and bloody death is everywhere. We later learn that it is Ze, hopelessly psychopathic and utterly without emotion, who has triggered this carnage.
Knockout Ned is a good-looking guy, easily attracting girls at a favela dance. Li'l Ze is not so pretty and is clumsy with women. Humiliation and degradation drive the two to be merciless enemies, and the City of God is divided into camps.
Perhaps the most disturbing sequence is when two small boys, no more than 5 or 6, are caught undermining the gang's authority. Ze orders one to prove himself and kill the other boy.
“This unique and fascinating movie from the slums (favelas) of Brazil offers an experience of subcultural brutality, revolting and despairing, and the resulting parallel society that generates when the mainstream does not pay attention or care.”
Rocket wants to be a photographer for the newspaper, and his picture of the criminal Ze makes the front page. He assumes this signs his death warrant. But Ze, unable to read, triumphs in the recognition and notoriety, and Rocket is the hero.
The Toll of Gang Violence
Brazil loses 7,000 boys between age 5 and 20 each year to gang violence. Underscoring the differences of the “haves” in the mainstream society and the “have-nots” or castaways in the subculture has buoyancy for the favelas and mainstream Brazil, but it has lessons for the first world as well.
We are not islands. There are pockets of poverty-driven violence and drug warlords in all of our cities. Drugs are not the cause, but rather the means to provide money and the illusions of power to those who see no other recourse.
As long as we ignore the conditions leading to the root cause—poverty, neglect, undereducation, an impoverished educational system, and erosion of the value for life—we lose an opportunity for change
The pundits have praised the courage of this movie, its vibrancy, and directorial flare and compared it to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, with the narrator sequence and return to the early story. Pulp Fiction also comes to mind.
It is unique and fascinating, but at the same time, revolting and despairing. This is not a movie for the faint of heart or those bothered by unbelievable brutality perpetrated by the very young.