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City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002), Globalisation and a Little Nostalgia

city of god

This is going to be a post of many firsts (beyond the obvious ones, like first post about a film from Brazil, first post about a Portuguese film, first post about City of God, and on and on and on…). More importantly, City of God is one of the first foreign films that I remember being really into. Back in the early to mid 00s, when you had to watch stuff on DVD or catch it on TV, and streaming was a pipe-dream, teenage me borrowed this from a cousin and was blown away. This film, along with Battle Royale, dragged me right into the world of foreign film, it all just felt so cool and fresh, and made me want to look further and further afield, further and further back. To this day, I’m still continuing to look and look, but I’m confident in saying this is where the expedition took its first furtive steps. The other important first is that the following comes from the very first attempt I made at a film-related essay for class. I’ve tried to iron it out the kinks a little bit, but for the most part it’s presented as it was then, so please excuse it if it’s a little rough! I think it’s fitting to start with a bit of nostalgia for the past, and a time when my eyes were first beginning to be opened to the wide world around me, given City of God‘s own exploration of the past, and its protagonists first forays into the world at large.

(spoiler warning for City of God, as one major plot detail is spoiled in this essay, as well as some other smaller story elements)

City of God and Globalisation

City of God effectively critiques globalisation not by any overt political message in the film, but rather by creating its world and telling its story showing the violence of the favela, while simultaneously making clear the root of that violence: the drug trade and isolation by the political classes. The acquisition of wealth and power in the favela is tied directly to a violent drug trade, itself a result of an increasingly interconnected world, and allowed to thrive in the favela by a seemingly detached and disinterested government. 

The main character and narrator of the film, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), states in the opening scene:

“A photograph could change my life, but if they run away they get you, and if you stay, they get you too. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid”.

The idea of the inescapability of the favela is demonstrated numerous times throughout the film’s timeline, from Rocket’s childhood in the 1960’s to the film’s present of the early 1980’s. Various characters are shot and killed all through the film, both when trying to escape the favela, or simply while taking part in the gang violence itself. The 1960’s section of the film is presented in much brighter colours, with open spaces and sunlight, and a more steady, sometimes static camera. As the film progresses through its timeline into the 1970s and 80s, there is much less light, the film gets darker and space becomes more and more confined, and the camera begins to move much more frantically, with quicker cuts, and in higher numbers than before (As described in Nagib 2004, p. 247). This progression highlights the pervasive and destructive nature of the violence prevalent in the favela, which is only worsening as time goes on and the drug trade becomes more contested and explosive, with no intervention from any political authority to stem the tide. It is through this the viewer can see the effect of globalisation (through the drug trade and character’s desire for wealth and power, and as willing participants in consumerism) and the violence and discord that is sown by its prevalence. The cyclical and never-ending nature of the violence is emphasised by the looping nature of the narrative, which begins showing Rocket already grown, flashes back through his childhood and later years and ends with a continuation of the first scene. The film ends showing armed children who had killed notorious gang leader Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino), walking the streets discussing who should be killed next, further emphasising this seemingly unending cycle of violence.

Rocket’s photography makes him an exception to his rule that you can’t run from the City of God, providing him with a means to escape. However, the reason that this is possible is that no photographers are able to get in to the favela to document the gang violence, so in order to escape he first has to remain embedded in that violence, to make a name for himself through his photography:

“In Rocket’s City of God, the only way out is through art, art in the classical sense of a transcendent inspiration that can trangress pre-established boundaries.”

Diken 2005, p. 316

Rocket sees this opportunity when a photo he has taken of Li’l Ze and some other gang members appears in the newspaper he works for as a paperboy. The journalists ask for more, though Rocket fears retribution from the gang. The outside world seems fascinated by the violence and turmoil in the favela and seem eager to see and read more about it. This fascination is why Rocket would be able to make enough money and earn enough notoriety as a photographer to escape it, but still there seems to be no appetite by the political classes or government to affect any change to improve the conditions in the favela. The attitude seems voyeuristic, wishing to isolate the problems to the favela and forget about it, but still consume details of tantalising violence with a detached eye. So “as a result of his ability to take photographs – that is, produce images which are appetising to the middle-class press – Rocket escapes his roots in the City of God”(Hart 2004, p. 207). It is in this way the film effectively critiques globalisation politically, emphasising the voracious appetite of the media for content against the lack of appetite to make any real change by the political classes, and further showing the isolation of the favela in an increasing interconnected global outside world. 

Rocket’s fear of reprisal for the photos appearing in the paper is unfounded however, as the gang members are pleased to appear in the limelight, feeling it shows they are the dominant force in the favela, and they relish the notoriety.  This hunger for fame and exposure in the media to a wider audience again emphasises the effect of globalisation on the favela, that the gangsters don’t want to be isolated with their crimes hidden, but in fact want them broadcasted to the outside world, and to bask in the notoriety this would earn. In the final scene, Rocket photographs Li’l Ze’s dead body after his brutal murder at the hands of the younger gangsters, and at the same time captures photos of corrupt police officers releasing Li’l Ze after robbing him. Rocket is reticent to release the police photos through fear of the consequences however, which further emphasises the distrust in the political world by the people of the favela and the corrupt and powerful nature of the police force.

The only governmental intervention seen in the favela comes from the police, and even then they are largely absent. They only appear briefly throughout the film, and seldom make any real move to end the violence:

“It is – ironically enough – only as a result of Li’l Zé’s refusal to pay for his guns that the police decide to act, because they have been providing him with the guns in the first place.”

Hart 2004, p. 206

Once again the detachment of the political classes from the violence in the favela, and their unwillingness to intervene to improve the situation, is amply demonstrated. They are conspicuous by their absence in the film, and this absence serves to highlight governmental inaction. As outlined by Fitzgibbon (2011), outside of the police, there are very few references in the film to the outside world and government, with one of the rare instances being Rocket’s description of how the favela came into existence in the first place (it was built in response to floods, with its inhabitants being relocated there after those floods displaced them). Rocket states “for the rich and powerful, our problems didn’t matter. We were too far removed from the picture postcard image of Rio de Janeiro.” The film is demonstrating that the political classes are happy to isolate the favela and its violence as long is it can remain hidden from the world at large and not tarnish the image of Brazil for tourists or a global media.

It is not just through the film’s story that the theme of globalisation can be felt, but also through the film’s style and visuals. Utilising technique and styles including quick-edits, flashback, and split-screen from Hollywood and western cinema, the film itself exists as a global product, and separates itself from other films from the region:

“The brilliant stylisation here could not be further from the miserabilist neo-realism of earlier Latin American urban cinema.”

Smith 2003

It is a gangster film in the same vein as previous classics of the genre like Goodfellas, using some of the same narrative style (the most obvious parallel with Goodfellas being its use of voiceover), allowing it to fit in well in the traditions of gangster cinema. In constructing a film in a way that would have more appeal to audiences outside of Brazil, the film-makers have ensured a global eye on the story they wish to tell, and using globalised film-making techniques to ensure an emotional response from the audience and attachment to the film’s characters:

“It clutches the spectator with its shocking exuberance and fancy visual effects.”

Melo 2004, p. 478

The film also uses photography in the telling of its story through freeze-frames and audio cues (such as a camera shutter sound effect when introducing characters) which provides a documentary style feel, as if the narrator is presenting his recollection to us and using photographs as emphasis. This adds to the impression of the film as a document of the favela’s experiences, presented to the audience by someone who actually lived through it.

City of God presents a world of violence intrinsically linked to the drug trade, and in doing so opens its audience’s eyes to a world hitherto unseen by most, and through its often visceral visual language conveys the frantic nature of life in the favela. The film shows a world isolated from society even within its own city, and left forgotten by its country’s government and politics. Through showing this world, and emphasising the lack of political intervention by not showing any, barely even referencing the outside world, City of God provides an effective political and aesthetic critique of globalisation. The film “simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows.” (Ebert 2003) and through this looking its message is delivered to the audience.

Bibliography

NAGIB, L., 2004. Talking bullets : the language of violence in the city of God 

MELO, J.M., 2004. “Aesthetics and ethics in City of God”, Third Text, 18, 5, pp.475-481 

FITZGIBBON, V., 2011. Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus/City of God : the representation of racial resentment and violence in the new Brazilian social cinema. In REGO, C & ROCHA C, (2011) New trends in Argentine and Brazilian cinema, Bristol: Intellect 

DIKEN, B., 2005. “City of God”, Collective culture and urban public space, 9, 3, pp.307-320 

HART, S.M., 2004. A Companion to Latin American Film,  pp203-210

EBERT, R., 2003. City of God. [Online]. Available:    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/city-of-god-2003

SMITH, P.J., 2003. City of God. [Online]. Available: http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/1483

MEIRELLES, F., 2002. City of God. Miramax Films.

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