Tasha: City Of God is a highly stylized movie, from the intertwined, title-heavy structure full of mini-stories to the staccato editing to the way it uses montage to suggest continuity. That last is one of my favorite things about the movie, particularly in the sequence “The Story Of The Apartment,” which turns a fairly conventional series of little drug-dealer-kills-drug-dealer stories into a montage built around a location, and uses time-lapse editing to track how that location deteriorates over time. The suggestion there, never stated, is that things are getting worse over time, as a low-key lady who’s dealing a little pot on the side, and who keeps a fairly clean, well-furnished, cozy apartment, gives way to a string of increasingly violent men who let the place rot around them. Also not stated: the idea that the apartment is a talisman. You can’t be the drug dealer in charge of the neighborhood unless you live in this one gross, grubby room that everyone knows. This is how City Of God often works: compressing a lot of suggested information into an extremely short sequence through a striking stylistic choice. Do you guys have favorite sequences in this vein?
Scott: Let me play devil’s advocate on style for a second, because it’s plainly a strength of City Of God, which renders the life of crime with the whipcrack speed and seductiveness of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, but with the unintended consequence of feeling too much like an entertainment. There’s a lightness to it that reminded me of a later film, Slumdog Millionaire, in that both take place in locales of crushing poverty, but they look so spectacular that it winds up papering over the misery and desperation that pervades its young characters’ lives. At the same time, the style is unquestionably exhilarating, and it gives us a sense of how a large crime machine operates over three decades, sucking up generations of young boys in its wake. I have favorite sequences—the staging of the motel robbery and its aftermath spring to mind—but I’m wondering if anyone else felt the style occasionally worked against the film’s thematic goals.
Nathan: Scott, I share your affection for the staging of the motel robbery. I think it’s a perfect illustration of style as substance, in that it uses incredibly flashy, hyperkinetic technique to comment on its characters’ lives, the world they inhabit, and its own uncomfortable position as a super-fun movie about unbearably grim social conditions. We first experience the motel robbery the way the characters do: as a confusing but viscerally exciting burst of action that’s almost too overwhelming to really process in the moment. Then we get the longer shot of the corpses, and the full portent of what has occurred sinks in. The filmmakers don’t linger unnecessarily on the carnage, but they do stay on it long enough for it to register. This is just part of the overall narrative: It isn’t until much later that we know the full story of the robbery and who was responsible for the massacre. In this instance, style doubles as substance; they work together in perfect unison, whereas elsewhere in the film, the intense stylization lends the film a glibness that can be disconcerting at best, and alarming and borderline amoral at worst.
Tasha: I disagree with you both, for the most part, about the film being too glib. For me, all the stylization just helps breathe life into what could potentially be a fairly standard rise-to-power, fall-from-grace crime story. It falters a bit for me where directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund go overboard on the titles, chopping the story into discrete segments. “The Tale Of The Tender Trio” or “The Story Of Li’l Zé” are major components of the film, but other segments, like “Flirting With Crime,” are just a scene long, and it doesn’t feel necessary to delineate them, which gives them more weight than they deserve. And at times, the editing gets a little too impressionistic—around the death of Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), for instance, it’s often unclear what’s going on, because there’s so much darkness and so many confusing close-ups edited into the mix. There’s an argument for it being directed as a confusing muddle because the scene itself is a confusing muddle, but intent aside, on a gut level, I wish it was less visually baffling. But are you thinking of something specific that you found excessive, Scott?
Scott: Maybe not, but I did feel while watching it that the initiation-killing of one of the Runts was the only moment that really hit me hard as tragedy. This is a movie about children victimized by startling, pitiless violence and exploitation, but I didn’t feel as crushed by it as by, say, Gomorrah. For one, Meirelles and Lund are caught up in spinning one hell of a yarn, and we can’t help but get caught up in it, too. But the film’s golden hues and constantly roving camera makes it seem pretty and exciting, rather than a more ground-level view of an impoverished, desperate situation.
Tasha: The choppy editing and wild angles in the initiation-killing scene are meant to convey the emotional chaos of the three young participants—the two victims and the shooter, all amazing child actors—but like many other stylistic choices in the film, they’re possibly to take viewers out of the scene just a bit, because it’s so horrific that it could easily become an anchor that weighs down the whole film, whereas the directors want us to see it as just more of the awful daily business in the neighborhood. You have to be able to watch that moment and still have enough feeling left to suffer along with Knockout Ned (Seu George), and care about the plight of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), rather than plunging into despair over the murder of one kid and the mutilation of another. There’s a distancing effect, but it’s a mercy. Frankly, it also may be meant to bring audiences into the state of mind of the residents of the Cidade de Deus slum, for whom murder is a casual daily occurrence, not something worth getting crushed over. A movie like Dancer In The Dark is about making you feel the weight of injustice and misery visited upon the protagonist. This is about moving rapidly past the horror of individual moments so you can see the big picture.
Crime and punishment
Tasha: City Of God essentially consists of a series of little punishment dramas, in which virtue is (eventually, at long last) mildly rewarded, and crime is harshly punished. That punishment almost never comes from the authorities: It comes from other criminals, or from an outsized sense of fate. Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) brings his eventual punishment on himself by cruelly punishing The Runts for their crimes. He’s also the source of punishment for Rocket’s brother Goose (Renato de Souza), a hold-up artist sleeping with another man’s wife. It seems appropriate that Zé earns his punishment not so much for his murders and his position as a drug lord, as for being obsessed with controlling and punishing others, like the teenager Benny exiles when Zé wanted to shoot him. The film is full of “live by the sword, die by the sword” subplots, and the main arc follows the same theme as well.
Nathan: The narrator at one point delineates between Knockout Ned, the handsome good guy, and Li’l Zé, the ugly bad guy, but in the world of City Of God, clearcut instances of good and evil are hard to come by. Power corrupts, and before long, the choice isn’t between a handsome good guy with a righteous cause (avenging his loved ones’ deaths and bringing an end to the rule of a vicious kingpin) and the ugly bad guy, but between a figure of incredible evil and a slightly more moral murderer. Knockout Ned is corrupted by his power and his vengeance, and by his immersion in a corrupt, toxic world. He starts off with clear-cut limitations on what he will and won’t do, but those fall by the wayside. As you point out, Tasha, the criminals of City Of God generally end up paying a steep cost for their crimes: Knockout Ned is no different, and it’s almost too neat that he ends up getting killed by the progeny of someone he killed when he first began to lose his soul.
Scott: I think there’s a cruel randomness to the way punishment is meted out for crimes in City Of God. Actions sometimes have consequences, as Nathan details in the decline and fall of Knockout Ned, but the tragedy of the film is that kids just get caught in the crossfire. Benny is ready to get out for good—he’s about as safe as a movie cop the day before retirement—but he’s gunned down at his own going-away party. The initiation Li’l Zé forces on a boy who has to choose which Runt to kill reduces shooter and potential victims alike to innocent children, without the hard posture they’d learned to adopt from the streets. Rocket somehow navigates this terrain without any landmines going off, but there’s a randomness to the fates of lesser players here that has little relationship to justice.
Nathan: The randomness of City Of God’s violence is so pervasive and overwhelming that it’s bound to affect the innocent as well as the guilty, and enshroud an entire community in collateral damage. But I think there’s an element of intentionality to Rocket sidestepping the fate that meets so many of his peers innocent passersby, one he avoids in no small part by making himself useful to the warring factions. Within the mythology of Westerns, he’s the one the bad guys let live so he can tell the tale of their evil deeds and terrifying power. Only in this case, he has a camera to document their misdeeds for posterity (a preview of the power the filmmakers themselves wield), which makes him all the more valuable and useful.
Tasha: There’s also something to be said about the negligible rewards for crimes in City Of God. Cinema is full of rise-and-fall crime dramas where criminals make a big score, or get into some illegal business, and subsequently live like kings for a while. The equivalent in City Of God is that Zé upgrades his home from an open-roofed pile of bricks—a literal pile of bricks—to a squalid, crowded hellhole of an apartment. The people he most admires as criminals are notable largely because they can afford a little jewelry, not because they’re tooling through the slum in white stretch limos with built-in hot tubs full of giggling, Cristal-sipping supermodels—or because they live somewhere above it all. No matter how rich Zé’s crimes make him by slum standards, he’s still living in the exact same slum as the low-lifes he sells drugs and gives guns. He’s better off than most, but not by much, and he certainly isn’t well off enough to justify the horrific risk of his day-to-day life—at least not as far as the audience is concerned. He’s clearly not as aware of the risks, and very aware of the rewards.
Law and order
Scott: One of the things City Of God excels at doing—and this is also true of Scorsese films like GoodFellas and Casino, which influence it—is showing how the lawless, in the face of an absent or ineffectual government authority, bring their own form of order to the slums. Watching City Of God, I couldn’t help but think of the popular support (and protection) Pablo Escobar got from his neighbors in the city of Medellín, simply for investing money in social structures that the Colombian government could not adequately provide its people. He was both the world’s most notorious outlaw and a beloved benefactor, and the latter gave him cover for the former.
In City Of God, we can see that no government attention has been given to the favelas, so the gangs assert their own rules and protections to provide a structure and code to the streets where none exists. And when the cops do show up, they’re so completely overmatched that there’s no confrontation whatsoever. Li’l Zé is a terrifying figure in City Of God, but even when he’s a young kid plotting the motel hold-up, there’s a cold pragmatism that keeps him alive and in power, an ability to understand his territory as an organism more complex than just a place to sell drugs. His rival Carrot doesn’t see the bigger picture, and thus doesn’t grasp power as shrewdly.
Tasha: The problem is that Zé’s shrewdness completely fails him when it runs up against his id. He becomes the law on his turf, and briefly proclaims that no one in his territory is to rob or rape—a rule he has more power to enforce than the cops, both because he has more weaponry and manpower, and because he knows the people in his territory, victims and perpetrators alike. Notice how no one ever tells the cops anything, even though their silence generally gets them punished, yet when the Runts rob a store in Zé’s area, the shopkeeper goes straight to Zé about it? And yet Zé sets up the events leading to his death by deciding he wants Knockout Ned’s girlfriend enough to rape her and beat Ned to keep him out of the way. And then he forgets his own gang war—in the middle of an attack, he abruptly decides to drop everything and go murder Ned for no reason instead.
It’s hard to understand Zé’s particular take on laying down the law. His ban on theft and violence in his territory feels like something he does out of ego, or a short-lived urge for peace, rather than because he cares about who suffers, or even who besides him is committing crimes. I’m really curious what the two of you think about this, because I think the movie leaves it entirely open to interpretation. Does he like playing dictator, but lose interest in enforcing his rules? Is he trying to win hearts and minds because he thinks it’s the smart thing to do, except that he doesn’t care enough about people to maintain it? Is he really all that smart, given how erratic and gleefully bloodthirsty he is?
Nathan: I think Li’l Ze represents a potent, combustible combination of pragmatism and uncontrollable rage, cold, cynical calculation and rampaging id. He rises to the highest echelons of the criminal empire through a combination of shrewdness and cold-bloodedness, but his Achilles heel is his inability to control his emotions. That’s what ultimately proves his downfall: The rage he feels toward Knockout Ned overrules his pragmatism. In the moment, he destroys what took decades to build. In the same respect, it doesn’t take Knockout Ned long to abandon the rules and codes he initially pledged to follow—namely, no killing of the innocent. After that, those rules don’t really exist anymore. That’s a dynamic that plays out throughout City Of God: Once a code is broken, its power is lost, and makeshift law gives way to utter lawlessness. It’s brutally telling that the final image of the film is of The Runts discussing everyone who must be killed to retain the current order; multiple forms of keeping and maintaining the calm are abandoned, until all that’s left is children murdering people who transgressed some imaginary code of conduct.
Nathan: To me, City Of God is in many ways a story about stories and storytelling, an extraordinarily successful exercise in myth-making that’s also about the act of myth-making. It’s about how legends and folklore develop and spread. It’s not at all coincidental to me that the protagonist of the story, the narrator, is a photographer and journalist whose value comes in his ability to compellingly frame the lives and images of the more charismatic, flashy, interesting people around him. One of the key moments of the film involves Rocket thinking that Li’l Zé will kill him because his picture of Zé appeared in the newspaper. Meanwhile, viewers discover that Zé’s actually overjoyed by the exposure, and wants Rocket to use his gift for myth-making on Zé’s behalf.
Part of the way City Of God mythologizes its characters is by giving them and their various groups colorful names. Movies have trained our brains to expect big things when we’re introduced to characters with names like Knockout Ned or Li’l Zé via freeze-frame, and the film does not disappoint. Street names suggest a certain power and glamour. Grubby little urchins with guns are just sad, but call them The Runts and give them dramatic backstories tying into the ruin of their city, and suddenly they have all manner of outlaw allure.
Tasha: Even the way Rocket frames the movie in his narration is about building it as a myth. There’s a lot of “To tell you this story, I have to tell you that story,” and “It isn’t time within this story to tell you this other story yet.” He’s presented as a storyteller, consciously building a narrative for an audience—a nice little bit of meta construction, given his chosen profession as a journalist. One of the things that strikes me about Rocket in particular is how little of his story we get. In part, that’s because he’s a journalist, and he’s trying to stay offstage as he tells the story. In part, it’s because he’s a relatively shy, introverted character who doesn’t seem to want to be center stage. But it’s also because he never does anything mythic himself. Retreating to his observer post, he gains his glory by spinning out elaborate stories about the big, exciting, story-worthy things other people are up to—like any good journalist does.
Nathan: I’ve joked around the office that one way of seeing City Of God is as another kind of heroic myth: the gawky, artistic teenager on a quest to lose his virginity. The film actually supports that reading, irreverently: It periodically revisits the thread of Rocket trying to get laid, which finally pays off when he’s able to combine a sexual awakening with incredible professional validation, by getting his photo in the newspaper and getting to smoke weed with, and then bed, an attractive older co-worker. But mostly, Rocket is useful as a camera, a way of framing and telling a story where he’s a bystander rather than a primary participant. He tells stories that lead to other stories within the context of the film, but also stories that lead to other stories in other films, most notably Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas, Casino, and other violent films about violent men telling stories. I suspect the film’s deep debt to the films of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese is a big part of why it was a massive breakout hit, and the only South American movie a lot of Americans are familiar with. According to IMDB voters, City Of God ranks number 21 on the list of the greatest films ever made. I suspect its enduring popularity—especially with teenagers, college kids, and other aggressive connoisseurs of cool—lies in its status as a story with an exotic setting that tonally and stylistically feels an awful lot like American genre films they love, only even more hyper-driven and intense.
Scott: Telling a story through the eyes of a passive protagonist is often problematic in movies, because you have the least interesting character at the center of the story. And I think this is true of Rocket, who we know only as a kid savvy enough to operate in this dangerous place—to take photographs of outlaws whom outsiders wouldn’t dare try to access—and come out of it alive, and in a job that puts him in a higher social class. Do we learn much about him? No. Is he on anyone’s shortlist of favorite characters from City Of God? I can’t imagine. But there’s so much narrative business that needs managing in the film that Rocket proves useful in organizing it. He’s like human script software. He creates the myths, which is what a filmmaker does, too, and his vantage on the events legitimizes the film from within. Rocket is an insider, which makes Meirelles and Lund insiders, too.
Tasha: One thing we haven’t much addressed is City Of God’s sense of humor. The grim story and that mythologizing element keep it from being too funny, but one in a while, it cracks a subtle smile at a random moment. The one that always gets me is when Rocket, trying to avoid Li’l Zé because he’s afraid Zé will kill him, seems to run into him around every street corner, to the point where he sighs, “What a drag this guy is!” For one weary second, the indiscriminate mass murderer who may want to kill him is just a frustrating inconvenience, on par with hitting all the red lights while driving home. The delivery reminded me of Batman in the 1960s Batman movie grumbling, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”
Nathan: Oh, definitely. To me, the humor of City Of God is a big part of what makes it palatable. If City Of God weren’t genuinely funny, it would be almost unbearably grim, and I suspect that if a deep vein of dark comedy didn’t run through the film even at its bleakest, the laughs this kind of feverish melodrama would engender would be of the unintentional variety. For me, however, the comedy sometimes felt a little too glib, like in that ending I described above. The Runts’ bloodthirsty reign was partially intended as a harrowing cautionary warning (meet the new boss, same as the old boss) but also as kind of a dopey joke, as an illustration that sometimes kids really do say the darnedest things.
Our Movie Of The Week began yesterday with the Keynote essay on City Of God’s self-aware storytelling, and continues tomorrow with a look at the cinematic sort-of sequel, City Of Men.