City of God (2002), Fernando Meirelles


A visually and morally audacious picture, Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 City of God, this violent, frantic, sprawling and elliptical tale of crime and poverty in a suburban slum of Rio de Janeiro, poses tough, controversial questions about income inequality and social justice.

city-of-god-2How does one fight injustice in a just way? Try and escape a prison erected before you’ve even been born. What would you do to make ends meet? What moral limits you’re prepared to accept in order to feed, house and raise your family? Any at all? City of God [Cidade de Deus] depicts the lives of people who have been dealing with such tough questions all their existences. It is easy to moralise from afar. It is arrogant to criticise choices we don’t have to make. It is safe to point the finger when there are no crime lords around to slice it off.

Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), aka Rocket, who just wants to become a professional photographer, recalls how crime evolved in the suburban shantytown known as Cidade de Deus. In the 60s, three teenage thieves known as Trio Ternura (Cabeleira, Alicate and Marreco) used to terrorise local businesses. One day, a much younger boy, Dadinho, convinces the group to rob a motel. The Trio leave with the money without harming anyone, but Dadinho, in a foreshadowing of his sadistic future, kills everyone in the place. As the members of the Trio die or disperse, Dadinho grows up and becomes the main and most powerful drug dealer in the favela. Now, he is known as Zé Pequeno (Leandro Firmino da Hora), aka Li’l Zé, and is associated with Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), aka Benny.

Zé Pequeno is cruel, socially awkward and insecure. His partner in crime, Bené, is cool-headed, pragmatic and confident. He now wants to leave this drug-lording behind and take his girlfriend Angélica (Alice Braga) to live in the country, away from the city violence. Bené often stops Zé Pequeno from killing others. When he announces his leaving, Zé Pequeno does not like it. After a brawl during his leaving party, Bené is killed with a bullet intended for Zé Pequeno. With Bené dead, Zé Pequeno decides to kill his last rival, Cenoura (Matheus Nachtergaele). When he rapes Mané Galinha’s (Seu Jorge) girlfriend, and this one joins Cenoura’s gang, it becomes an all-out war. In the end, a gang of pre-pubescent kids kills Zé Pequeno, thus perpetuating the violence in the favela.

..How to Influence People and Succeed in Business.

Like in The Godfather (1972, Coppola) and The Godfather – Part II (1974, Coppola) the most fascinating issue that emerges from City of God is the relationship between power and the illegitimate means of acquiring it. It is really frightening to realise how similar the psychological traits displayed by the main gangster characters in the films are to the ones shown by politicians and businessmen who acquire power through legitimate means. Although acknowledging the myth about successful people – Wall Street CEOs and assorted – and their likelihood of belonging to the psychopath category, who can honestly deny the two protagonists’ calculating attitude, a typical attribute of accomplished people?

Both Li’l Zé in City of God and Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces exhibit several psychotic characteristics. Not only they have the ability to keep cool, think of the bigger picture (the pursuit of power at all costs?!) and be ruthless if necessary, but they also display a callous lack of remorse towards the killing of their closest sibling/associate. However, there’s one thing that they lack, and that is, charm. Unlike true psychopaths, they can’t manipulate others. Other than with the power of violence, neither can captivate or dazzle other people to do things for them. As you can see, they’re not so different from world leaders!

cropped-city-of-god-1.jpg   city-of-god-3

There is, though, a major difference between them. While Li’l Zé has shown an inclination for crime since childhood, the young Michael had imagined a different life for himself. It is obvious that one cannot compare the destitution and violence of Cidade de Deus with the New York of Michael’s youth. However, through their social milieu one can trace a common thematic thread between both stories, and find themes of exclusion, alienation and covert racism. Though the USA do not have the same levels of inequality present in Brazilian society, it always had to conceal its own unjust distribution of wealth. Theirs is the story of the same struggle for recognition; their fate surely determined by their displacement.

I am truly convinced that Michael has been right all along since that little talk with Kay, his future wife. ‘My father is no different from any powerful man…’ he says to her. Relocate the young selves of Li’l Zé, Michael and even the Vito Corleone played by Robert De Niro to a posh boarding school and 30 years later these guys would be running the country. So to ask the question again, how does one fight injustice in a just way and try to escape incarceration from the womb? Simple: one can’t. Or if you ask Li’l Zé or Michael, the answer would be, you fight fire with fire. You kill them all, perhaps during a baptism or a barbeque.

One of the greatest films of the 2000s, an important Brazilian movie of the past 20 years and a masterwork of dazzling cinematography and storytelling, City of God deserves its label as a modern masterpiece.

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