The Rear-View Mirror: City of God (2002)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

The first scene of Fernando Meirelles’ and Katia Lund’s City of God starts with a chicken trying to escape the frying pan, and it ends with the standoff between two warring drug gangs in Brazil’s Cidade de Deus, the poorest quarter of Rio, where the politicians put the lowest classes in the Sixties so the rich wouldn’t have to look at them. Cidade de Deus doesn’t have electricity nor water, and it’s almost impossible to get out, not geographically, but socially: if you are born there, you will most likely die there.

Six minutes into the movie, we already have to cope with three story strands. There is something of Melville in its structure: I want to tell you about Lil’ Zé, but in order to make you understand, I have to tell you about the Tender Trio, and so I have to start with how my brother… You get the idea. But City of God, based on a novel by Paulo Lins, sounds confusing, but it’s not. It’s fast-paced, but it’s never in a rush.

There is one boy or young man, and he is called Buscapé, or Rocket, and he wants to be a photographer. First, he has to pass the test of not becoming a gang member, and there is a very funny sequence where Rocket and his best buddy try to find out if a life of crime is for them. They want to steal money from the ticket seller on the bus, but he tells them he knows karate and used to be a sharp-shooter in the army. Our two would-be criminals get off the bus full of admiration for the man. (His name is Knockout Ned, and he is played by musician Seu Jorge.) So they decide to rob a small store instead, but the girl behind the counter is so sweet, they talk to her until she gives them her number. They leave, enamoured, only to get into a car with the intention to rob the driver, but they end up smoking weed with the driver, and they smoke the paper with the store girl’s number on it. They’re useless at crime, and at love, too.

Others like Lil’ Zé want to rule the whole Cidade, killing everyone who stands in their way. There is a gruelling scene early on where a young Lil’ Zé kills the johns and hookers in a brothel; that kid has far too much fun shooting people. There are also Knockout Ned and Carrot who want to rule or to eliminate Lil’ Zé, which is the same thing. The following gang war is not shot in any glorifying way, but in a manner that makes us realize that drugs and guns are an almost logical consequence of a neighborhood rife with poverty and desperation where the police either stay away or cooperate with the warlords. It’s a violent film, but it avoids to glorify its gangsters, but gives the impression that being in a gang is not a choice, but a contagious social sickness.

Meirelles and Lund got some of their actors from the street; there is one of them who is in prison for shooting a cop. City of God is highly stylized, but it still feels weirdly down-to-earth and rooted in something that rings true. There is a sort of companion piece, a TV mini-series called City of Men, and a ten-year anniversary doc about the cast ten years later, but it’s this movie that stands at the centre of it all. There are countless movies about the endless cycle of violence in a run-down neighborhood, but this one gets everything right. At the end, there are small kids, all armed, thinking about writing a list about who to kill in order to become the next kings of the hill. If they only had someone among them who knew how to write.

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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