In 1960, as a part of an ongoing campaign of “slum clearance,” the Brazilian state of Guanabara built a large housing project on the west of Rio de Janeiro. The settlement, also known as Cidade de Deus, the City of God, eventually became a dumping ground for the underclass of Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Flint, Michigan or Lowell, Massachusetts, the “City of God” was built, not to house “workers,” but people who had no place in the economy. The result, as Paulo Lins dramatized in his semi-autobiographical, 1997 novel The City of God, was a suburb of 30,000 people ruled small gangs of, mostly young, drug-dealers and petty, organized criminals. By 2009, violence in the City of God had gotten so out of control that it was occupied by a “Police Pacifying Unit.”
City of God, the 2002 film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, is an adaptation of Paulo Lin’s novel. It has an almost legendary status on the American left, and among American film critics, as being one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m not sure why exactly it took me so long to finally getting around to watching it, but I would largely concur. Filmed with a remarkable degree of innovative skill, socially progressive and relevant, violently beautiful, it’s easily one of the best movies of the 2000s.
Lund and Meirelles, like all great directors, know how to grab the viewer by the throat and not let go until they’ve made us, not only understand, but experience what they want us to see. There were times watching City of God when I was tempted to think that every other film I’ve ever watched about the poor was wooden, sentimental, and irrelevant, that I wasn’t watching a movie, but reality. I know this is artifice. City of God dramatizes a reality that for most of us might as well be on the dark side of the moon. I have no critical perspective from which to judge the vision that the directors have laid out in front of my eyes, nor do they attempt to provide me with one, but it doesn’t matter. My only option is to surrender myself to the immediate spectacle of Rio de Janeiro’s violent criminal gangs. That is the goal of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and in that they’ve succeeded. There will be time to think about it all after the film is over.
In the very first scene, Meirelles and Kátia Lund almost dare us to look away. Their camera zeroes on on chickens getting butchered in preparation for a feast, throats being slit, guts being pulled out of chicken buttholes, bloody feathers being scattered on the ground. Suddenly, one of the chickens escapes, running wildly through the streets of the City of God, pursued by an armed gang. We root for the chicken, not only because we want him to live, but because we realize that he’s a symbolic representative of the young men pursuing him. Standing in the middle of the street, a young photojournalist pauses to take a photo. In front of him is the armed ganging pursuing the chicken. Behind him are the police.
“If you run away, they get you, and if you stay, they get you too.”
The photographer, whose nickname is “Rocket,” is also the film’s narrator. To help us understand the scene unfolding in front of us, he says, he has to take us back a decade and a half to his childhood in The City of God. Soon we learn that the leader of the armed gang chasing the chicken is named “Little Z,” and that he and Rocket grew up together. Little Z is bad news, really bad news, even for the leader of a drug gang. Even though “Little Z committed his first mass murder before he was in his teens” sounds almost comical typing it out, the film stages the act in a way that makes us believe in the idea of a deadly, preteen gunslinger. A decade later, and Little Z is not only the head of his own drug gang, he’s killed off the leaders of every rival gang except one. Needless to say, Rocket is terrified. The week before he had taken photos of Little Z and his friends that accidentally wound up getting put on the front page of a newspaper he hopes will hire him. No reporter at the newspaper had ever succeeded in getting inside the “City of God,” so this is his big break. It might also mean his death.
Many film critics have compared City of God to Meanstreets, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction, but its real spiritual godfather is Los Olvidados, Luis Buñuel’s savage masterpiece about the slums of Mexico City. As a character named “Knockout Ned” learns, you can do everything right, obey the law, study, look for a job, join the army, but if you grow up in the City of God, you’re damned. Sooner or later, you will return. Your only option is to surrender to the violent energy of the Favela. Nor can you find salvation in the love of your fellow slum dwellers. Like Knockout Ned, a gang member named Benny tries to get out of the circle of the damned, only in his case, he tries to uplift his friends and neighbors with kindness, to share the money he’s made in the drug trade with people less fortunate than himself. It doesn’t matter. He dies anyway, violently, horribly, needlessly.
Rocket, a composite of a real Brazilian photographer and Paulo Lins, the witness, the observer, the voyeur, is the only one who only survives. That not everybody can make a living as a photojournalist, a poorly paid profession on cusp of being eliminated by digital cameras and smartphones, is part of what makes City of God an honest film. That Rocket also decides that if he doesn’t want to end up lying in a puddle of blood like the subjects of his photos there are things about the City of God he must not report — like the collusion between corrupt police and the drug gangs — is what makes it a great film. Rocket survives, but since his success as a journalist is tightly wound up with what he would like to escape, he doesn’t really make it out. In the end, the City of God claims him too.
Final Note: People often express confusion about the Marxist distinction between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariant, between the working class and the underclass. City of God consciously, and repeatedly, addresses the difference. One by one Rocket’s friends come to the point where they have to choose between being a “worker” and a “hoodlum.” One by one, the City of God chooses for them.