This essay analyzes the construction and filmmaking approach used in “Cidade de Deus” (referred to as City of God throughout), a 2002 Brazilian film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, by Paulo Lins. The film was an international commercial success, receiving widespread critical acclaim, sweeping the awards of international festivals in 2002-2003. The film illuminates the darkest corners Rio’s favela’s in the 1960s – 1980s, raising the invisibility cloak on its most vulnerable inhabitants — the children who are brought into gangs, drug trafficking and who ultimately become victims of gun violence at a young age. While there does not appear to be clear quantifications of the film’s impact, nor its ability to garner social change (particularly for residents of the favelas), the construction of the film/ story can be credited (at least in part) in catalyzing much needed dialogue in Brazil and abroad about the social crises central to the film.
The term ‘favela’ refers to highly populated urban agglomerations that emerged in Rio in the early twentieth century; they are characterized by substandard housing, and are usually built on land not owned by the inhabitants. The term has become local vernacular for the poor, segregated areas of the city, but it is also seen as a community of contrasts — of solidarity and sociability, but where drug-related violence remains very real (Freire-Medeiros 22). Prior to the 1970s, illegal settlements were not considered under the Brazilian government’s purview, and therefore, deemed not a priority for public amenities, transport, education or healthcare infrastructure. This began to change from the 1970s onwards when, in Brazilian university postgraduate programs, favelas became a favourite topic of study across various disciplines. Foreign researchers conducting fieldwork in the favelas also helped to debunk the many prejudices. Around this time, demographic data surfaced revealing favela inhabitants were not always Afro-Brazilian, criminals or unemployed, but were marginalised by systemic discrimination (Williams 492). Rio’s favelas began receiving infrastructure improvements and their citizenry rights recognized in the 1970s. By the 1980s, most had electricity, water and sewage infrastructure. However, the escalating violence brought into the favelas by drug trafficking and gun violence (the topic of focus in the film City of God) reinforced perceptions of favelas as dangerous criminal spaces (Williams 492).
The film is divided into three stories: Shaggy’s story, Benny’s story and Li’l Zé’s story. The dual meaning of the word story was unlikely accidental. ‘História’ in Portuguese means both ‘story’ and ‘history.’ The use of this term in Portuguese reinforces that there is a history of neglect, and these ‘criminals’ are a product of circumstances derived from the favela environment, in desperate need of their voices being heard (Meirelles; Nagib 246). The film borders on ethnographic in how authentic the voices are. Amateur actors were selected from favelas (by filmmakers Meirelles and Lund) and were encouraged to improvise, use their own vocabulary and body language, which further contributed to the film’s authentic feel. Through the use of a mediator (Rocket/ Buscapé), the favela environment and its politics are navigated and narrated. In the film, Rocket’s character grew up in the the favela and he continues to reside there, but exists on the periphery of City of God’s drug gangs. When Rocket gets an entry-level job at a newspaper, others’ reactions to his photographs illuminate how impenetrable City of God’s drug gangs are. As far as characters go, his neutral position (to the drug gangs) and insider perspective (of the favela), provides a window into its spaces and social realities, that seem relatively foreign to even Brazilian outsiders (Freire-Medeiros 24; Meirelles; Nagib 245-246).
City of God has become connected with an earlier film movement from the 1960s (cinema nôvo) of Brazilian political films focused in part on the “aesthetics of hunger.” These films narrated, described, analyzed and poeticized themes of hunger. When City of God was released internationally in 2003, Brazil’s population was around 170 million — 46 million of those lived on less than a dollar a day (McClennen 105). Hunger in Latin America continues to be seen as more than mere lack — it is an expression of violence and a source of power. From a filmmaking perspective, hunger is universal. It represents human craving, need and desire. Aesthetics of hunger in Brazilian filmmaking developed specifically because it was felt to be one of the few avenues of expression appropriate for exploring political filmmaking in Brazil. It is through the prism of hunger that class partitions, issues of entitlements and denial of rights become layered and authentically felt through film (McClennen 95, 97, 99). Using an aesthetic that borrows from television, advertising, and music videos, City of God’s graphic and glossy depictions of favela violence were criticized for introducing a “cosmetics of hunger” — of turning hardship of Brazilian urban life into spectacle (McClennen 95-96). However, with the box office success it garnered, and the debates it catalyzed, it is difficult to dismiss the (much needed) dialogue that coalesced on Brazil’s urban social crises at the time (McClennen 99). It became clear to film intellectuals, Meirelles was building on a Brazilian film movement known as cinema nôvo (which promoted anti-Hollywood, anti-European film; reflecting harsh realities of Latin American life in ways that promote social change). I believe, Meirelles approach was an attempt to achieve a larger objective, where commercial aesthetics were a strategic choice towards creating an audience experience, that combines social critique via specific (commercial) aesthetic constructions (McClennan 99-101).
Meirelle says the film was conceived with Brazilian audiences in mind, but he admits taking the stance of a foreigner who narrates a true story (Freire-Medeiros 24). The central issues explored in the City of God had similar relevance across the developing world, as third world urban slums were estimated to house 78.2% of urban populations in 1980 (overlapping the time period in the film). Based on the demographic data of the age structure in third world cities at the time, around half of slum populations were under the age of twenty (Davis 13). The intergenerational impact/ outcomes of slum conditions of that time, were likely still being felt/ examined around the world, making the film near universal in topicality to intellectual audiences across the global south (Freire-Medeiros 24).
Forced to conform to the emerging logic of the global market where financing and screening of films were becoming less supported by state protectionist structures, Meirelles recognized the need to adjust to a global marketplace, which at that time, was redefining what it means to make a national film. Aesthetically, global cinema was entering a new phase—one that “combined cinematic pleasure with politics, that avoided didactic moralizing, and that understood that the mere act of making and distributing a film about these issues, in the contemporary context, is itself a political act” (McClennen 105). In this globalizing media landscape, mass media’s barrage of imagery began to function as a form of pedagogy with its increasing volume and intensity — offering the potential to reconfigure the very nature of politics, cultural production, engagement and resistance (McClennen 102). Meirelle seemed to recognize this shift.
As such, the film’s success should perhaps be measured by the work itself and the impact it had – debates it provoked and how it changed the direction of social critique that had governed Latin American approaches to filmmaking at the time. The film had been successful at engaging the Brazilian public to reflect on the social themes central to the film (McClennen 95-96). Whether this eventually manifests in significant systemic social change, only time will tell.
Davis, Mike. “Planet of Slums.” New Left Review. 26-34. Mar-Apr 2004. Web. Jun 1, 2017.
Freire-Medeiros, Bianca. “I went to the City of God’: Gringos, Guns and the Touristic Favela.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. 21-34. 1 Mar 2011. Web. June 1, 2017.
McClennen, Sophia A. “From the Aesthetics of Hunger to the Cosmetics of Hunger in Brazilian Cinema: Meirelles’ City of God.” Symploke. 95-106. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2011. Web. Jun 1,
Meirelle, Fernando and Lund, Kátia. “Cidade de Deus.” Miramax Films. 2002. iTunes. Jun 1, 2017.
Nagib, Lucia. “Talking Bullets: The Language of Violence in City of God.” Third Text. London: Enclave Studios. 239-250. 5 Aug 2006. Web. June 3, 2017.
Williams, Claire. “Ghettourism and Voyeurism, or Challenging Stereotypes and Raising Consciousness? Literary and Non-literary Forays into the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro.” Bulletin of Latin American Research. UK: University of Liverpool. 483-500. 2008. Web. June 1, 2017.