City of God (2002), also known as Cidade De Deus, is a film directed by Fernando Meirelles following the journey of a kid in Rio de Janeiro showing both the dangerous and vibrant elements in which they violently collide at times. Meirelles agrees and states that “everybody [working on the film] did it with passion” according to an interview with Bradford International Film Festival 2010 which clearly shows as every element is magnetic; the music, the editing and the cinematography.
City of God has been described by Roger Ebert as “breath-taking and terrifying”. The film is clearly both as the city of Rio is split into the two binary oppositions, one is a lively and exciting one and a dangerous one. Meirelles opens with an extreme close-up of a knife being sharpened and this is emphasised to the audience as it sounds enhanced against the diegetic sound of people in the slum drumming. Meirelles then jump cuts to different close-up shots; different angles of the knife, carrots being peeled, a chicken and a general brief view of life in the slum. A chicken is then emphasised to the audience, as the chicken is forced to watch another chicken getting slaughtered. Early on we know that there is a recurring theme of blood and violence in City of God, the chicken could easily be one of the ‘Baby Gangsters’ and perhaps even a premonition into the future. The opening shows Rio as hectic and vital through Meirelles use of exciting jump cuts and enigmatic shots. This makes the audience curious and intrigued as the opening on its own is enigmatic through Meirelles’ techniques.
Baby Gangsters have key significance in City of God as Lil Ze (played by Douglas Silva as a child, and Leandro Firmino da Hora as an adult) started as a Baby Gangster and Rocket (played by Luis Otavio as a child, and Alexandre Rodrigues as an adult) could’ve easily become one leading a very different path. Meirelles shows the brutality involved with being a baby gangster. The scene starts with the Baby Gangsters talking about getting into the drug trade and the gangster business after performing small crimes, that Lil Ze does not approve off. As Lil Ze comes to punish them for their crimes, most try to escape and nearly all do but two. He asks them ‘hand or foot?’ referring to which body part they want shot off. Both decide on hand but are shot in the foot, which Lil Ze does to emphasise his power. He then forces the gangster prodigy Steak to kill one. The camera slowly zooms into his face, showing the pained look as he can’t bear to kill someone that could’ve been him. A close-up of the two children panning from one to the other, showing the look of distraught on their faces and how terrified they are. Lil Ze constantly insists that he wants to know ‘what he is made of’ pushing Steak to kill one of the children. Lil Ze is shown as an antagonist but the true enemy of City of God is society. Lil Ze is trapped and western society has encouraged the ‘American Dream’ ideology that money buys happiness therefore leading Lil Ze to a life of crime. Lil Ze is a lost soul and underneath his mean exterior is a shy teenager as seen when first interacting with a girl. Robert Warshow says that gangsters are tragic heroes, the modern equivalent to a Shakespearean hero, to which Lil Ze is and his tragic flaw is hubris. His flaw leads the audience to sympathise with him as it leads to his downfall.
Rocket is also a lost soul like Lil Ze and arguably a reversed doppelganger of him. Rocket and Lil Ze are binary oppositions; Lil Ze is representing the trapped society in Rio de Janeiro forced to serve their own justice while Rocket represents a beacon of hope much like Bruno did in Bicycle Thieves (1948). Rocket could’ve easily been the gangster, he even gets the chance to avenge his brother yet he does not. The fact he even considers this shows that he has some psychopathic tendencies, his destiny and fate was in his hands. Rocket could’ve become Lil Ze and taken over his ‘empire’ but chose not to. His brother’s words stuck with him and after the death of Shaggy; Rocket develops a passion for photography which essentially saves him from his possible life of crime. As Rocket is introduced, the camera changes to a calmer long shot zooming into a final mid shot. It is a change in pace and a binary opposition to the previous wild edits as they are brought to a halt. There are two subtle shots of Lil Ze, both close-ups of him but by a fraction of a second. This shows that Lil Ze has a split personality emphasising the theme of duality. Meirelles shows us the two character’s personalities before they have even had interactions by his techniques of camera making the audience intrigued. Lil Ze as an adult may seem immoral and a megalomaniac but from seeing his upbringing as a kid and comparing with Rocket’s upbringing, we cannot entirely judge him for his actions and pity him.
Ebert stated that City of God “announces a new director of great gifts and passions” as Meirelles is magnetic and his techniques create extensive meaning evoking audiences to respond. City of God kick-started a whole series that led to City of Men (2002 – 2005), but nothing is quite as harrowing as the original film. It shows poverty to a whole new level; the only spiritual predecessor would be Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. City of God is an exciting and magnetising film, and deserves to be on a pedestal with Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.