city of god

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Set in one of the many ready-built towns, known as favelas, around Rio de Janeiro, Cidade de Deus (City of God) is a harrowing depiction of a life in which innocence is an unknown word, and naivety will get you killed. The titular City of God is a breeding place for crime. Populated by under-privileged, poor, beaten down people, and controlled by the street gangs, with little chance of escape. Children are exposed to death and crime from birth, and there are few in the city who can earn enough to live on without having to supplement it with illegal activities. Despite this, and against all expectations, hope remains, and this hope is the central theme of the film.

This is a world of endemic and endless daily violence, and a seemingly casual disregard for the value of life. Children as young as eight-years-old carry guns and use them. Life expectancy is short. There is an acceptance that this is the way things are, that this is a section of the population doomed to repeat this lifecycle of violence.

The context of the fact-based film, explained in a voiceover at the beginning, is that a political decision was once made to relocate the unsightly, uneducated poor from the fashionable areas of Rio to government housing on the very edge of town, but of course the areas are slums with few urban amenities. The subtext, however, is that the poor are unable to obtain decent income.

What works best in City of God are the portrayals of the characters involved as well as the medium-shot theories that are evident, in terms of how they are depicted? They cover a good range of personalities and, curiously, make a case for the theory of hard-wired human behavior. Each major player in the movie is distinct, and we can sense how deep each ones inclination toward crime is due to natural-born tendencies as opposed to social and economic influences. One last major characters lust for vengeance eventually overpowers his sense of decency. It all suggests the ills of society are best cured not with blanket policies but instead with case-by-case strategies - some of these people could be reformed, some probably just cant be, and some will never need to be. All along we see glimpses of the humour, exuberance, and humanity of the characters.


The film spends some time outside the slum, at Rios beaches, illustrating how sad it is that such worlds exist in such close proximity and that these young people have to return to the slum at night. There is hope for escape. “Rocket” is the movies least interesting character. Although hes a resident of the slum, hes basically an observer who never does anything particularly dramatic. This allows us to keep our distance, so we experience the horrors of the favela more as a spectacle than as something in which were emotionally invested.

In the meantime, we are invited to look upon the gangland scene with sadness and some apprehension. As the film ends some time in the early 80s, we see new kids with guns picking up where the old kids left off; ready to start the cycle anew.

The film follows the Realist film theory as well as ideological criticism by portraying the raw material to such a wide scope that it is reality itself. The film is a construction against the background of gang violence throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. In this brutal yet stirring tale about children struggling to survive, that idyllic perception is more than just dispelled, it is gunned down mercilessly like a rival gang member.

The direction is sharp and energetic in terms of film semiotics, and given the many gun fights and acts of violence the film contains, it is all the more credit to shoot and edit each in a different, yet equally effective, style, meaning that each is as interesting as the last. The photography is also excellent � the early scenes are imbued with a rich golden glow, and as the story progresses, these changes to washed-out hues, add to the worsening nature of life in the city.

High on technique and drunk on attitude, the tale is presented with a combination of tried-and-true energetic techniques - tracking shots, split-screens, hand-held camera work, fast editing, period pop music, and swooshing pans and sound effects. The look is gritty, the depiction of gun violence is unflinchingly brutal, and the body count is high, all of which implying that the ability to use a firearm is a more important and prevalent trait than the ability to read and write.

Though some viewers may find the relentless style pacing and camerawork disorienting, and the story might have benefited from fewer characters, the image-bombardment style and multiple intertwining plots have a deliberate cumulative effect, namely to immerse us in this chaotic and mesmerizing cauldron of violence, death and struggle. We see what these people go through, and how many have to go through it. This is imaginative and challenging filmmaking

I wouldnt describe this powerful film as banal nor the plot muddied. A non-linear narrative helps understand how children can become occupied in violence and how cause and effect operate in the anarchic world of the favela. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are on the beach or at the party where all the characters demonstrate their humanity. Full of recriminations and reprisals, some genuine shocks, and overflowing with vitality, Meirelles’ film is a fine piece of oppositional cinema.

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