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City of God

Fernando Meirelles


Emilie Bickerton

'Overwhelming', 'intoxicating', 'irresistible'. The adulation is well-deserved, but this picture is much more about style than substance. Maybe it's his old roots creeping up on him - Meirelles was the founder of Brazil's biggest commercials company, O2 - but this movie is almost too cool for its own good.

It is billed as the direct voice of the kids in the favelas, and an attack on the Brazilian government's failure to address their issues, not least the very fact that the shantytowns exist. 'Out of sight, out of mind' just won't do. Fine, but despite its motives, City of God falls short on substance, and coming out I resolved that this film is for watching, pure and simple. Let's not pretend it's 'important' from some moral or educational point of view. It's not so much a criticism, as a clarification amid the frenzy the film has provoked.

The film spans three decades in the City of God in Rio de Janeiro, starting in the 1960s, when the favelas were built as temporary workers' housing under the industrious military dictatorship, and stretching into the 1970s and 1980s when, beset by problems with industrialisation and debt repayment, the government sought a quick fix by sending the (corrupt) police in to deal with the anarchy. That's all the context you're going to get (and I might have been a little too generous).

One boy, Rocky, guides us through the film, which, at a ferocious pace, covers the lives (and deaths) of 12 other kids from the City of God. All of this is gripping and powerful stuff, and there are some enduring images and impressions. The most powerful is the realisation that it was the very young Li'l Ze (then known as Li'l Dice, later the main gang leader in the favela) who was responsible for the massacre at the hotel, not the older gang leaders. His excited, childish laughter as he shoots everyone in sight is chilling to say the least. I found that scene more powerful than any horror film because it provokes more than blanket shock. There is a mixture of evil and social context making it richly ambiguous, as you both condemn and understand. Li'l Ze can't be abstracted like any plastic Chucky doll: there is a certain reluctance in your condemnation.

The incredible proliferation of arms that fuels the violence is never really explained. Some may say it shouldn't be, that giving such a political context would detract from the original purpose of the film as a raw expression from the favelas themselves. Hence the absence of any other world (the Brazilian middle class is only glimpsed: white couples having lots of sex, and then white couples bloody and dead on their beds) - these worlds simply don't mix. Certainly the point is made early on that the City of God and other favelas like it are the places the rest of Brazil would rather forget, blots on the landscape of the developing metropolis, showing up the national motto 'order and progress'.

The result of this conspicuous absence is a very personal explanation of the motivations and causes behind drug dealing, racketeering, and gang warfare. Kids will join gangs and kill as a result of pointless jealousy (looks, girlfriends) and petty disputes. Allegiances are no more meaningful than that. Banalities come to provoke fatal consequences. This might describe the immediate reasoning of the protagonists, but the lack of a wider context makes the origin of all this mysterious, and in that way, untouchable and unchangeable.

Brazil has been predominantly under authoritarian rule for over a half a century. Only by the end of the 1980s did Brazil establish a form of democratic elections after the two military coups (1930 and 1964). An extremely divided society on racial and social lines, the disparities of wealth in Brazil are the greatest in Latin America, with the top 10% receiving 50.6 % of GDP, and the bottom 20% receiving 2%. Obviously one does not expect the film to explain the origins of these problems or provide answers, but at least signposts to wider explanations would make the film and its protagonists less hopeless.

The argument that any signposts would rid the film of its authenticity, that the rawness of the voices would somehow have been lost is founded on a false dichotomy between local truth, and grander narrative giving historical, social and political context. The two are inextricably linked, and making those links would give a specificity to the problems without detracting from the sense of alienation. Saying you don't want any grander narrative sounds suspiciously like a condescending 'let the victim speak his/her truth' approach. To say no other context than a local one should be given scorns reality in favour of representation and makes film-making into some kind of ethical exercise.

The narrator of the film, Rocky, offers an outlet from the incessant violence as the only character able to transcend his environment. Rocky is a boy who dreams of photography and girls and getting out, rather than making his way to the top within the favela. His every day is troubled by the fear of coming up against the likes of Li'l Ze, and the precariousness of life is captured as you follow him throughout. In his opening line, he warns that 'Se correr o bicho pega. Se ficar o bicho come'. If you run away, they'll get you, and if you stay, they'll get you too.

Rocky flirts both with violence, and with an 'honest living' (he takes a job in a supermarket), each attempt fails, and the reasons encapsulate the film's qualities and its failings. His flirtation with an honest living is ended very quickly in a cynical scene that implies if you're from the favelas your roots will haunt you wherever you go, and the 'honest living' is just a cover for a bunch of prejudiced, white Brazilians who'll never really trust you.

The failure of the life of crime however captures the films strongest quality - it is stubbornly human at every turn. Rocky can't bring himself to a life of crime, because each time he tries, he comes up against something good - the girl at the shop he was going to raid asks for his phone number, the guy in the car he tries to hijack offers him a spliff and they laugh the night away, and the bus driver he wants to hold up tells him to work hard and get out of here, providing an example of adulthood based on wisdom and experience, rather than murder.

A bitter sweetness comes and goes throughout, making the horror completely human. The violence is mindless, but the people never are. The film spans two generations and develops 13 different characters, yet each one of them stays with you, to the point that you come out after an assault of violence, retaining an image of the human face of it all. Violence is not some alien assault on humanity, but nor is it hopelessly instinctual.

Nevertheless, Rocky is an ambivalent figure. He is admirable in so far as he is able to see beyond the immediacy of his environment, and demand far more than what he has. But his successes are difficult to celebrate. There is an obvious tragedy in the fact that he can only realise his dreams of becoming a photographer by capturing violence, bloodshed and corruption in his own home. Rocky's dreams translate into visions of death and disintegration; and it is difficult to sustain any dreams when it seems reality can only corrupt them, rather than breathing life into them.

There is also the feeling that Rocky is always from the favelas, both when he is rejected by the supermarket staff, and when he is accepted by the journalists at the newspaper. Although it may allow him to realise his dream eventually, his identity is cemented by the City of God. In one scene Rocky runs expertly through the back streets with his camera to reach the perfect position for observing the crude corruption of the police, as Li'l Ze is captured, robbed and then killed. Rocky takes pictures of it all, and you get the impression that no-one else could have done this, no other journalist could ever have captured the truth because they were not from here, that there is a hermetic quality to journalism and photography.

Yet photography and journalism are the only means of objectifying the reality of the situation for a wider audience, a means of reporting the truth. To confuse roots with truth is to relativise everything, to reduce journalism to a personal statement. Perhaps after Rocky's first success he will be allowed to shed the 'favela reporter' tag and report other issues in which he may not be such a 'native', using his roots as a stepping stone rather than an unshakeable foundation. Nevertheless, his emancipation from the City of God is ambiguous, his success is totally founded on his positionality, on the moral legitimacy he holds as a victim, and for those reasons it is difficult to celebrate because the freedom is drastically qualified.

Do see this film. But not out of any weird moral imperative, just go for a good movie, in the aesthetic and expressive sense. You'll have to fill in the gaps afterwards though, if you want to find some answers or at least explanations of the problems that are raised. The name City of God plays on the metaphorical importance of God, as a symbol of hope or promise that is ominously missing from the favela, giving the impression that, in Ivan Karamazov's words, everything is permissible. The feeling in the favela is not atheism, a rejection of religious faith, but just godlessness, a feeling of hopeless desertion. That this is conveyed is the vice and virtue of the film.

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