“Cidade de Deus” (Brazil, 2002): Meirelles’ Vilification of Poverty and Violence Conveys an Important but Ignored Message.
Posted on 11th March 2022 at 05:49
By Sebastian Grace
Contrary to much of the broader commentary, I will claim that the film "Cidade de Deus" vilified the violence it so infamously depicts, capturing its omnipresence to challenge the entrenched and willful ignorance of a Brazilian middle class and foreign audiences towards a long ostracized “other,” suffering under the weight of the debilitating impacts of poverty and violence. I will propose the directors represent this perspective with a combination of specific evidence from the film and research references.
“Cidade de Deus” is a 2002 Brazilian film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. His background informed Meirelles's work on "Cidade de Deus". One of his earliest films, "Domésticas" (1999), also focused on social justice issues in Brazil and caused controversy for tackling a sensitive subject: the world of underpaid maids working for middle-class families. Like "Roma" and "La Nana," more recent Latin American films on the same topic, this work shows a notable disregard for convention and the issues people of privilege would prefer to be undiscussed. The idea for the film came from an original novel by Paulo Lins published in 1997, based partly on his childhood growing up in the “Cidade de Deus” favela in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro. More than a novel, Paulo Lins’ work can be described as a “testimonio,” a fictionalized version of a real-life story based on its characters, a powerfully written insider view of the favela and its increasingly tragic condition from a black author. Meirelles said of his inspiration: "This book is very important because all the favela literature has been written from an outsider's point of view.” “Cidade de Deus” featured one of the largest black casts ever seen in a Brazilian film, and to recreate the realism of Lins’ book, the directors cast nearly 200 children from the favela, who improvised more than 70% of the dialogue. This creates a complex and informative relationship between the constructed fictional world and the real world throughout the film.
"Cidade de Deus" centers on the stories of young gang members from the Cidade de Deus favela. Key characters include "Rocket," played by Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Firmino da Hora as "Lil Zé", who runs an armed gang of children known as the “Runts.” As Wesley Morris wrote in the Boston Globe in a 2003 review of the film, “As a 10-year-old, he's the mannish crime visionary who shot Rocket's brother. As a teenager in the '70s, he's a self-aggrandizing, drug-dealing killing machine who has rechristened himself, blowing people away as a matter of fact. By the '80s, he has started a cartel that basically controls the City of God's underworld.” The film is based on the true history of Rio de Janeiro. Youth gangs took over the favelas during the 1960s and didn't relinquish their stronghold until the mid-1980s. At its peak was a brutal war between two gangs led by Manuel Machado Rocha, or “Mane Chicken,” and Jose Eduardo Barreto Conceicao, or “Ze Pequeno.” As James Brooke wrote in the New York Times in 1990, “Brazil's grinding poverty makes boys grow up fast, and the legal system makes minors useful for criminal gangs.”
The opening scene of “Cidade de Deus” establishes the prevalent themes of the rest of the film. The harsh scrapes of a sharpening knife against a stone (0:55) immediately inject violent weaponry and an ominous tone. At the same time, the chase of a chicken (2:12) suggests the metaphorical net is closing in. The sharp slashes of the knife juxtaposed with the extreme close-up camera angle as it is being sharpened make the audience feel uncomfortable and unsettled right from the start, with fast-paced samba music increasing the intensity as the events of the scene move forward, captured with shaky handheld camera work. The transition between each shot of the knife is black, which conveys a blinking effect on the viewer, making the audience feel that they are waking up in this fast-paced, alien world. This footage, coupled with the mise en scene of the cramped, rugged, dirty and graffitied favelas, establishes the location as a foreign, dangerous place through the frantic and chaotic nature of the scenes. Uneven, tilted shots create an increased sense of disorientation within the favelas to show a lack of control and contrast with controlled and civilized areas.
The associated realities and conditions of poverty dominate every shot in “Cidade de Deus.” The life portrayed by the film is a harsh existence, one in which, as “Rocket” quotes, "Honesty doesn't pay, sucker” (1:01:58). Themes associated with poverty are omnipresent: food insecurity, lack of an established family structure and extreme violence (39:42). Shiny handguns (09:29) and drug paraphernalia are typical imagery, with the boys routinely smoking marijuana (1:05:52) and snorting cocaine (51:50). However, the viewer rarely sees anyone eat food, only selling it or stealing it (56:09), emphasizing its economic elements over its ability to nourish and sustain. Even a stray dog eats (1:00:20), further dehumanizing the characters. The precarious and criminalized nature of their existence is closely tied to their lived experience of poverty, viscerally identified by a lack of food access. The film opens with a scene of hunger, and its role in societal degradation is established, as a community that suffers hunger engages in violence to satisfy it. Furthermore, the only families we see are those of “Rocket” (27:58) and “Knockout Ned" (1:19:27), both characters associated with a desire for escape, and each play very minor roles. Characters are in many ways incomplete and two-dimensional. We know nothing, or next to nothing, about their background other than their immersion in poverty and violence. Janice Paige wrote in the Boston Globe in 2002, “Everything feels forsaken in ‘City of God.’ Fernando Meirelles's hard-to-watch film is set in a corner of Rio de Janeiro where life is so cheap, it's easier to shoot your best friend than ask him to shut up for a minute…Children murder children here, just to get ahead for a day.”
Due to the conditions of their existence, "Cidade de Deus" appears to tarnish all the young boys with a criminal brush. No one in the favela can ever be completely innocent, emphasized by the harrowing portrayals of violence (58:48). Not only are children the victims of violence, but they are also willing perpetrators, seeing it as the only option for survival, and being desensitized by its central role as a tool of subsistence, strength, and safety. This is illustrated when Shaggy is doing keepy-ups with a football before shooting it as it arcs through the air (05:08), which visualizes the shattering impact of violence ‘popping’ their childhood innocence, as football is a passionate aspect of Brazilian culture and ‘just a game.’ The boys are locked in a vicious cycle of crime. The drugs bring power and money, one of the more stable jobs in the favelas, but they also ruin lives and create violence. In Film Comment, Meirelles told Alcino Neto, “There is a war going on, and middle-class Brazilians just don't realize it.” In violence, safety is conferred by proximity and membership within criminal gangs that exist in war-like conditions.
The character of “Rocket” drives the film as a narrator, adding to the realism and documentary aesthetic presented throughout “Cidade de Deus.” The color palette is an essential visual tool that accompanies "Rocket's" character development as the cinematography confers “Rocket’s” worldview. The color hue of the camera shot is blue at the start of the film (01:57) and gold during the flashbacks (05:20). The blue represents coldness and how “Rocket” has been desensitized by what he has witnessed whilst he has grown up. The golden color represents the warmness of naivety as “Rocket” is unaware of the violence that occurs. He dreams of becoming a photojournalist, and his proximity to the violence and intimacy with the notorious gangsters allows him to take pictures that not only chronicle the gang wars (1:24:02) but also expose police complicity in illegality (37:52 and 46:42). His camera is arguably a more powerful weapon than any of the guns and his photographs are wanted because he has access others do not due to his background in that community. In "Cidade de Deus," there is a juxtaposition between "Rocket's" way out from the slums and the lives of his friends. "Ze's" violence and notoriety give "Rocket" access to stories in which the richer, often whiter world of middle-class Rio de Janeiro has an interest. The photographs that “Rocket” takes of “Lil Zé’s" gang earn him a professional camera, as they want their pictures taken and to later see themselves in the newspaper (1:37:45), and the violence in which “Rocket” has twisted and turned all his life becomes his passport out of the favela. As Stephanie Muir writes, "The position of both narrator and photographic documenter tend to place Rocket outside, or to the side of, events. He finds his way out of the favela but has to return to take the pictures that other photographers can’t. Is violence necessary for him to succeed? Does his privileged position make him part of it even if he is not a perpetrator?” “Rocket” is one of the few characters who is ever seen outside the favela: on the beach (1:00:33) or in a van delivering newspapers (1:31:12). As a result, he is presented as the positive expression of hope, the one who escapes the trap of poverty and violence. His way out of the slums is through photography; he shoots pictures instead of people. However, he must go back to take the images that will allow him to leave, which illustrates the director’s choice to show the favelas as inescapable traps.
The setting and the impacts of urbanity are important accentuators for the film’s broader themes. There is an evident gulf between the favela and the traditional exotic and sexy depictions of Rio de Janeiro’s sea and sand. The images of poverty, violence and hopelessness contrast with Rio as a city of pleasure, samba (1:09:45), and suntans. Despite its intense violence and routine presentations of poverty and its associated socio-economic conditions, "Cidade de Deus" does not wholly forgo the beach scenes and sensuality of the more romanticized traditional view of Brazil. Some of the "Rocket" and his friends' life will resonate with American audiences' comfortable image of Brazil. They listen to American pop music (53:27) and smoke marijuana and go to the beach (47:48). This could serve to obscure the reality of their dangerous life and neutralize the constant threat of negotiating the perils of the favela. However, the beach represents a life in which they do not share nor belong. As "Rocket's" friends quip to each other, "The sun is for everyone, the beach is for those who deserve it" (32:37). They suffer under the intense heat of the sun, a natural rhetorical device depicting the intensity of the fire in which they are forged but are barred from the necessary respite for relaxation, in the form of the sea and sand, emphasizing the societal structural barriers in the way of escape.
The structural inequities of the city are presented in a raw and unfiltered fashion. In the film, the mode of travel for the boys is mostly walking, often with inadequate footwear on the rough streets of the favela (56:56) or cycling (49:56). The motorized vehicles included in the film played a role geared to emphasize their dire situation involved in criminal activity and the class divide between the moneyed classes and the character’s: a stolen car to get away after robbing guests at a motel (13:10) which they crash, emphasizing its alien and unsuited nature, the supply truck which they robbed despite its service for their favela (06:06), and the public transportation (1:03:19) that had to be used to travel to purposely out of their reach places like the beach. This dynamic remains the case in Brazilian cities more than 50 years after the depicted events, illustrated in the documentary "Chega de Fiu Fiu." Released in 2018, focused on women's experience in cities, directors Amanda Kamanchek and Fernanda Frazao explicitly illustrate how the participation of women in urban spaces is marked by insecurity, exploring the streets, walkways, and public transport of Brazil. "Rocket” tells the viewer that the favela was initially built to move the poor out of Rio's city center. He reveals, "We came to the City of God hoping to find paradise…There was no electricity, paved streets, or transportation, but for the rich and powerful, our problems didn't matter. We were too far removed from the picture postcard image of Rio de Janeiro." (08:45)
In conclusion, the combination of the hip aesthetic of "Cidade de Deus" and its considerable box office success and focus on violence generates a lot of commentary on whether the film used images of suffering to create a spectacle for public consumption or whether it gave much-needed public attention to Brazilian social crises. At the time of the film's release, Brazil, with a population of 170 million, had 46 million inhabitants that lived on less than a US dollar a day. This raises the issue of the use of scenes of violence and poverty in the underdeveloped world as aesthetics for the entertainment of the developed world. The risk that accompanies the director's missions in commercially popular and culturally significant films is that creating a spectacle may seduce the viewer so that critical reflection becomes, if not impossible, then unlikely. There is evidence, however, that the risks were worth it in the case of "Cidade de Deus" since not only did the film draw a sizable Brazilian population to the theater, but it also sparked a significant amount of public debate. Even President Lula, who attempted to implement a “Zero Hunger” policy after his first election in 2002, called the film a cry for change. Ultimately, presenting a film depiction, if not insight, into the deprivation of the favelas may change nothing. Raising debate, however, is more important. By artfully conveying the reality of life in the favela through the scenes of poverty and violence in "Cidade de Deus" onto the screens of those who so readily allow their existence, the director arguably plays their role in shining a light on long-forgotten communities and criticizes rather than contributes to their exploitation.
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