Looking Back: ‘City of God’

For modern film fans, 2002’s City of God is a key entry in Brazilian cinema.  Based on Paulo Lins’s 1997 semi-autobiographical crime fiction novel, the film adaptation promotes themes of adulthood, survival and pessimism in one of Rio da Janiero’s favelas. City of God follows young aspiring photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and his childhood and subsequent adolescence in the Cidade de Deus favela.  Set between the end of the 1960s’ and the beginning of the 1980s’, it documents the growth of organised crime in the Cidade de Deus.

The consistent theme of pessimism is reinforced by the life of crime that is immediately introduced to the film.  Within the first ten minutes, criminals are seen as heroes.  Representing the ‘Robin Hood and the Merry Men’ of the favela, the amateur ‘Tender Trio’ robs local shopkeepers and vendors and shares the profits of their robberies with their fellow citizens to essentially survive.  In return, they receive police protection from the area and the adulation from the local children, as they represent someone they aspire to be and a much-needed role model.

With this misplaced respect and the growing need to be idolised themselves, these youths grow up to become the very criminals they looked up to in their childhood.

imagesIn the process, they lose their innocence, as well as all hope of having a normal way of life, as they are essentially born into an inevitable future of crime, drugs and death.  This is proven when Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), the right-hand man and best friend of notorious drug dealer Lil Zé (Leandro Firmino), ultimately decides to start a new life with his girlfriend Angelica (Alice Braga).  However, his association with Lil Zé (and bad timing) tragically takes his life before it can truly begin.

However, it also works the other way round.  Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) is seen as one of the ‘good guys’ in Cidade de Deus; a former soldier who now works on a bus, he stays clear of the criminal lifestyle.   However, Lil Zé’s insecurity and jealousy, especially when it came to his girlfriend, drives Ned over the edge and in retaliation for his family’s deaths, he teams up with drug dealer Carrot and instigates a vicious crime war against Lil Zé.  His actions corrupt the goodness of the character and lessen the hope that even in such an area like Cidade de Deus, not everyone needs a gun to survive.


The only beacon of hope is the narrator Rocket.  Even though he is brought up in the same neighbourhood as Lil Zé and is close friends with Bené, he isn’t swayed by the ‘glamourous’ crime-ridden lifestyle.  Even though he tries to become like his late brother Goose and hold up a bus, he ultimately decides against it.  As a result, his decision of choosing a crime-free, conventional lifestyle saves him.

One of the taglines for City of God is ‘Fight and you’ll never survive.  Run and you’ll never escape’.  Even though the film emphasises that a life of crime is inevitable in Cidade de Deus, the fact that its narrator survives without blood on his hand may be its ultimate triumph.

Thanks for reading.

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