City of God

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Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (2002) has provoked critical discussion concerning its representation of the Brazilian working class since its release[2]. The film has been described as both disturbing and electrifying for its brutal realism and inspired cinematography[3]. Whilst it was eagerly received by critics the world over, others have film questioned its worth as a production for Brazil’s people. City of God became the focal point of a battle of representations concerned with the ‘real’ and the imagined working class society.

Internationally distributed by American company Mirimax, many have accused Meirelles of fashioning a fetishized ‘tour’ of favela life and catering to Eurocentric stereotypes of a criminal black underclass[4]. Several Latin American commentators felt that distinctive aesthetic style of the film diminished what Ivana Bentes calls the ‘aesthetics of hunger’ in exchange for pure ‘cosmetic’ artistry[5]. In order to obtain an adequate understanding of the debate which surrounds City of God, it is essential examine various subjects.

I firstly wish to obtain sufficient contextual knowledge of the modern favela in Brazil. The Cinema Novo movement similarly documents such issues as the poverty and the violence of the cangaco lifestyle addressed with in City of God[6]. This essay will focus on Meirelles’s work as a modern depiction of life in Brazil’s favelas.

It will consider the interaction between narration, cinematography, postproduction and music in order to judge whether it’s fair to declare City of God as simple ‘spectacle’ and nothing more. Narrative structure is an essential feature of the film and is used in a omplex manner. It tends to manipulate time frame, repeating and returning to the same events and jumping back and forth over the decade in which it is set. Accompanied by a homodiegetic first person speaker, many have noted narrative similarities between City of God and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)[7]. There is a cyclical nature to the narrative as the first scene appears for a second time towards of the films end. This initial sequence is important for several reasons. It firstly establishes the restless cinematic style which comes to characterise the City of God.

In addition we are introduced to favela life and two of the film’s key figures, Rocket and Lil’ Ze. The scene begins with a montage of flashes that illuminates a series of close-ups, with cuts to black between each shot. We first see an extreme close-up of a glistening blade being pulled across a black rock and hear the jarring sound of metal on stone. The flashing imagery and harsh audio instantly create a sense of unease. From here, lively samba music fades in which coincides with extreme close-ups of fingers on the neck of a guitar, the shaking of a tambourine, a hand slapping the hide of a drum.

This sets up the location as a stereotypical scene of tropical festivity in order to stress the favelas ‘local colour’[8]. The fast edit of close-ups continues and begins to show faces, hands, tumblers of drinks, food being prepared, chickens being plucked and put into pots. The atmosphere is relaxed and jovial however, amidst the festivities the films first mid-shot shows a distressed chicken, watching its companions killed and butchered. The chicken escapes, jumping from the roof into a quiet alley.

From here the music abruptly stops and cuts to a shaky close-up of Ze who cries “go after that chicken, man! ”. A frantic chase characterised by a montage of colliding shots ensues: extreme close-ups followed by point of view and tracking shots. We see the absurd pursuit through narrow streets from above in high crane shots and from the chicken’s perspective in ground level in low-angles. The spectator is thrown into the reckless and expeditious world of the characters, creating a sense of hedonistic abandon and excitement. The chase leads to the first of the dramatic scenes within City of God.

A heavily armed stand-off between Lil’ Ze’s gang, and the police ensues and we are introduced to Rocket who is caught between the two. It is here that the shot rotates 360 degrees, spinning us into the past, leaving the spectator keen to understand more. It is this exhilarating sequence of editing and camera work that has led some viewers to brand the film an indulgent exhibition of romanticized ghetto life. However, the producers of the film claim that the effects are present in order to assist the telling of a universally human story and are intended to capture its realism[9].

Katia Lund commented on the rotation shot and remarked that “the critics would say this is a film from Hollywood, they’re doing The Matrix, these fancy shots. And the cost of the shot was… $20. Just a guy pulling a dolly”[10]. There are three central sections within the film. Although they are consistent in character and often in circumstance, they should be seen as separate narratives. Each narrative represents the changing nature of the favela over a decade and contains its own visual style and mise-en-scene.

It is through this structure that I am able to analyse each section individually and asses to what extent they prove or disprove Bentes’s claim that the film distorts the reality of poverty into a ‘visual super-spectacle’. The first section of the film is dubbed ‘The Story of the Tender Trio’. We are taken back in time to the nineteen-sixties where the City of God is no more than an orderly complex of neat bungalow where we are introduced to a more youthful Rocket. He is centred in a mid-shot which then cuts to a medium-long shot of his friends aiming a football in his direction.

Two features are immediately apparent: the colour, lighting and the landscape. The earth on which the boys are playing appears to stretch far into the distance. This then cuts to shot in which we appear behind Rocket, who is guarding the goal posts. A wide-angle lens is used here which acts in furthering the sense of space. The camera is static and the cuts are unhurried. This is not the dark, urban favela to which we were previously introduced and hints, therefore, at a sense of simplicity and freedom. The colour palette consists of yellows, oranges, deep browns and whites and a golden hue saturates the frame.

This creates a romantic and certainly nostalgic tone for a past which has been lost. The dazzling white of the overexposed sunlight encourages a ‘retro’ feel but also a sense of desert barrenness and scorching heat. It is presented as a kind of frontier land, which Bianca Medeiros has criticised as a familiar genre setting for the Western and therefore comfortable viewing for the foreign viewer[11]. It is also possible however that the use of landscape and lighting is a tribute to the Novo style, in which scorched, rough, barren scenery (so-called ‘geological violence’) was celebrated[12].

This first section is also where our homodiegetic narrator introduces the numerous primary characters. These introductions are realised through a series of freeze frames on which titles and names are overlaid. The Tender Trio are presented to us after we see a canted shot of Shaggy shooting a football in mid-air. The ball hits the floor and yet another low canted shot pictures the teenager spinning the revolver around his fingers in slow motion. It is here that a non-diegetic syncopated guitar melody enters. Shaky cam shots of the entertained children follow as they laugh and high-five.

The frame then freezes mid-action and zooms in on Shaggys smiling face as Rocket introduces him. I feel that this is the first instance of glamorised gangsterism[13]. The rousing guitar, laughing faces and Tarantino-esque freeze frames create an undeniable sense of cool. This surrounds not only the characters but also the possession and shooting of the gun. There is a sense of excitement; a care-free and masculine hedonism is presented here – a ‘popification of poverty’[14]. This combination of editing, music and camera work is repeated when the Trio raid the Miami Motel.

The patter of percussion instruments enters as a medium shot shows Shaggy (dressed as a staff member) enter the room of a couple who are having sex. A shot-reverse-shot sees the couple look up in surprise and the sequence cuts back to Shaggy who drops his tray and pulls out his gun. A montage of reveals his friends to be doing the same. Despite the screams of scared occupants the previously mentioned guitar motif enters. This trivialises the situation and injects an element of humour which I personally find unsettling.

This is particularly so as the screen dissolves to black and transitions to a slow pan from left to right, displaying a room full of murdered people. The darker tone established by the motel scene and the death of Shaggy, is maintained and continued into the second segment of the film. We enter the nineteen seventies with a car that pulls a screen wipe from right to left. A score of sharp Brazilian funk enters and a hand held camera tracks Rocket and Stringy as they stride towards Angelica and Thiago. The camera jolts as t tracks them from behind and places us in their gang on the walk to the beach. Rocket is the only of the key characters that is seen outside of the favela and later acts as a mediator between Rio and the City of God. It has been said that the absence of alternatives available for many of the characters is represented by an almost total lack of reference to spaces outside the slums[15]. This has been disputed by Latin American critics who believe the pessimistic tone of the film suggests misery in the favela as a ‘natural’ state of being[16].

The very implication of naturalness, of course is that it is unchangeable, immoveable – a force too complex to fully comprehend or confront. It is this which is at the very heart of the polemic debate surrounding City of God. The film’s editing, effects, soundtrack and cinematography successfully manipulates the spectator’s emotions. Melo has observed the ease with which the Hollywood narrative is able to do just this – they are remarkable for inviting our emotional participation. They do not seek to educate, to make us understand things, to clarify ideas.

If they raise cultural issues, it is not to discuss them as ideas but as emotion-laden values[17]. Yet again the colour and the lighting are emphasised. A blue filter shrouds the scene in a cool hue and the sun in the sky is overexposed once more. The forthcoming beach scene is characterised by canted shots of Rocket’s gang as he takes bleached photographs. Multiple cuts from freeze frame to freeze frame are emphasized by the sound of a clicking camera shutter. Once more the shot is swiftly zooms in on the smiling faces and then slowly withdraws.

Over the top of this scene plays a seventies psychedelic electric guitar solo, which yet again drenches the characters in retro glamour. The idyllic beach setting with clear white sands and vivid blue water offers an idealised image of Brazil, its favelas and the poverty in which they live. Canted close-ups of Angelica in a bikini reveal Rocket’s feelings for her – after all she “was gorgeous and the only girl in [their] gang who screwed”. She romantically drifts in and out of focus and provides a sense of eroticism and sex which furthers the scene’s allure.

This sense of cool is again emphasised during Lil’ Dice’s shocking murder of Goose. After the teenager explains that he is leaving the ghetto, a medium long shot sees him jogging towards the camera, away from Lil’ Dice and Benny. This cuts to a shot of Dice which is fluidly zooming in on his glistening face as he calls the gang member back. As Goose turns back a non-diegetic low whistling sound signifies danger and a medium close-up shows the child’s face as he looks at the gun. This cuts to a medium shot of Dice framed by the bricks of his hideout as he aims and shoots.

A burst of seventies style brass can be heard as the sequence hastily transitions to a medium shot of his smiling face as he shoots again. As Goose falls to the ground, we are placed in his position with a canted worms-eye shot looks up the barrel of the child-gangster’s gun, an image which yet again mimics the visual style of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). From here a fast cut sees Lil’ Dice from the same position but in different locations across the favela. Meirelles reveals that he has continued to ruthlessly murder throughout his childhood and into adolescence, but not without a smile on his face.

The narrative has entered another space. We are no longer witnessing three amateurs on a brotherly adventure. Lil’ Dice represents true and unyielding evil and encapsulates the hopelessness and violence of the favela in which he lives[18]. Although he is presented as a psychopathic killer, I feel that the sequence described is in direct agreement with Melo’s argument that the film ‘glamorises gangesterism’[19]. I find that the seventies soul / funk style refrain detracts from the emotional impact of Goose’s death and overwhelms the shock of witnessing a child kill with enjoyment.

The scene can be interpreted as nothing but cool and presents Lil Dice’s murderous climb to power as in some way justified or respected. Several critics have noted City of God has adopted a clear aesthetic of postmodernism[20]; a style which has been related to Meirelles’s background as a Brazilian advertising giant. This emphasis on visual fashion as a form of seduction, it has been said, epitomises the character of the postmodern communication environment and often results in the impoverishment of content[21].

This is certainly true of this scene as we are rendered as emotionless as Lil’ Dice himself. Andrew Tudor agreed with this, saying: so rapidly does the film’s editing hurtle past the countless deaths that we barely have time to register their presence, let alone entertain an emotional response[22]. This is, however, is not consistently the case. The shocking torture scene of the Runts is, at times, almost unwatchable. A point of view shot over Ze’s shoulder sees the younger of the two backed against a blood-red wall, as a gun is pointed at his chest.

The red ominously suggests blood and constricts the frame – the boy is trapped. His facial expression is one of devastation and terror. Lengthy mid-shots are held on the children’s faces as, facing death, they begin to sob, making the sequence all the more distressing. The camera tilts down from the infant boy’s head to his feet and reveals a childish frame, with bloated belly and tiny fingers. Ze continues to bark “choose” at them both, appearing as a perverse father figure disciplining his offspring.

The scene becomes bleaker still as Steak is instructed to murder either of the two. Long close-ups of each the three faces alternate as he takes the gun and all that can be heard is the crying of the youngest. Steak looks away and shoots whilst Ze erupts with excited laughter. The diegetic audio, lengthy shots of pained faces juxtaposed with gangs amorality is utterly chilling. The spectator is no longer relieved by stylish music or freeze frames – they style used here invites, even insists on our involvement[23].

It is clear here that the City of God is absent of morality or virtue and the irony of its name becomes fully apparent. The spectator is made complicit in the horrendous torture of a child. It is from here that films tone has begun to blacken; the romantic golden hues of the initial narrative are gone. This section sees Ze as not only a figure of pure evil, a psychopathic torturer of children, but also as a corrosive influence over the last surviving agent of virtue – Knockout Ned. The rape of Ned’s girlfriend is a final, unbearable humiliation.

A swaying medium long-shot pictures the couple embrace in a shady street, the only illumination is a small key light from above. Brazillian wind instruments and percussion fade in and out as a medium shot shows Ze watching them. His wild stare is emphasised by short depth of field and the music which pervades the scene is continues to fade in and out. This becomes extremely unsettling as we anticipate his reaction. The instrumentation has faded and what is now heard are screams of “let me go” and the comforting words: “just enjoy it”.

Yet again cinematic devices are used to heighten the sequences terrible events. The audio grows faint as Ze’s terrible face fades to black. A series of flashes reveal extreme close-ups of flesh on flesh and bursts of agonised screams. The flashing reveals the perspective of Ned who we see upside down and in close-up, beaten, on the floor: unable to watch, unable to help, a memory he would rather not fully recall. An accelerated tilt rights the shot and we see the boot of a gang member pressing down on his bloodied face as Ze laughs and his girlfriend weeps in the unfocused background.

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