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Once Upon a Time in Rio: Film Review of City of God (2002) by Christopher Wostenberg

I initially named my sideline series of film reviews, “Dr. Wostenberg’s World of Cinema” to focus on all kinds of films including international ones. To date, most of the international films I have reviewed have come from European countries, with the only non-European one being the Japanese film Rashomon (1950). I must admit that I don’t own too many non-European films, as they are harder to find. Likewise, I have not seen many films from South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the last year or so, I have been trying to rectify this gap in my film knowledge and experience. To encourage the same at CHS, I have chosen for this film review to look at the Brazilian street gang film, City of God (2002).

City of God is a film loosely based on the real-life story of the growth of gangs in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) suburb of Rio de Janeiro from the 1960s to the 1980s. The narrator, Rocket, desires to become a photographer so that he can leave the suburbs behind. He tells how his neighborhood changed from a housing project with petty crime, which his brother Goose was involved in, to a full-on slum of violence and drugs run by Li’l Zé. As narrator, the audience witnesses Rocket’s interconnections with the members of the gangs even though he remains outside them. One such connection is through Benny, Li’l Zé’s right-hand man and member of Rocket’s friend group. Another connection is when Rocket photographs Li’l Zé and his gang as the neighborhood becomes infamous during a turf war. The story is told through smaller episodes that build to the larger overall narrative of Cidade de Deus.

The intense scene where Steak decides which one of the Runts to kill as part of his initiation into Li’l Zé’s gang. Retrieved from City of God (Meirelles, F. and Lund, K., 2002, Miramax Films), Scene at 01:02:09.

A major aspect that differentiates City of God from other gangster movies is the emphasis on the non-gangster narrator. Going all the way back to gangster movies from 1930s, the genre predominately follows the story from the perspective of the criminal, usually dealing with the rise in power of a street criminal through the ranks until his eventual demise. This remained a part of the genre even after the self-imposed ethical standards of the Hays Code was replaced by the MPAA rating system. The Godfather (1972) is considered groundbreaking, in part, because it breaks the last part of the convention, the demise of the criminal. Like City of God, The Untouchables (1987) also uses a non-gangster narrator, following the perspective dof Prohibition-era law enforcement. However, the police in The Untouchables behave similarly to the mafia, forming their own gang to oppose Al Capone. City of God truly breaks the mold, by following the same story beats of other gangster movies including the raise in power and demise of a criminal, but focuses on more of an outsider to gangs in form of photojournalist want to be, Rocket. Rocket’s life entwines with rest of the gangsters in the film by becoming a part of Cidade de Deus, attending the same parties and having friends that are in the gang. At one point in the movie, he almost enters into the lifestyle himself by seeking revenge for his brother’s death, but ultimately Rocket goes against this desire. In the long run, Rocket remains a bystander to the events.

While this might seem like a minor feature, it has a significant impact on the film’s storytelling. Other gangster movies glorify gang life encouraging the audience to become invested in the criminal lifestyle of the main characters. The genre examines how society’s partly to blame for the characters’ desire to get caught in the criminal world of money, power, and revenge. The audience is sympathetic to the lead characters and their exploits in crime. This desire to be a gangster is only dispelled at the end with the death of the gangster and the audience realizing that crime ultimately brought nothing in the long run. With City of God, there is never much admiration for the gangsters, as Rocket, the narrator, sees the lifestyle as undesirable from the beginning. Viewing the events from his perspective only strengthens this notion. Also, the audience realizes early on that there are other choices that a person can make to lead them out of the slums, similar to Rocket. Society is not to blame; instead, it comes down to the choices of the individual person that leads them down their path of crime or not.

Another aspect that sets the movie apart is its tight connection between the main character and the location. I am not saying that other gangster films do not seem highly specific in location. It is clear that The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) take place in New York City’s Little Italy and Boyz N the Hood (1991) takes place in Compton. But the difference is the suburb Cidade de Deus seems deeply linked with Rocket. Cidade de Deus grows up to maturity alongside the narrator, Rocket. At the beginning, it is a small housing project on the out skirts of town. It is in its infancy having been recently formed from the natural wilderness of the jungle next door to larger city of Rio de Janeiro. Any major criminal activity comes from the city into the neighborhood. Rocket is a young child at the beginning of the film. He is seen playing soccer with his friends and avoiding the trouble caused by his older brother and friends. Like the city, he is aware of crime, but avoids it as something outside of him. Both the housing project and Rocket have the potential to become anything, even given their less then humble beginnings.

As Rocket grows up and Li’l Zé takes control, Cidade de Deus becomes an urban jungle. No longer are there open dirt fields for soccer. Instead, there are multistory buildings with alleys that twist and turn between them. The streets seem harsher with fewer families and more juvenile delinquents. A local drug house trades hands from one small time criminal to another until Li’l Zé takes it over. At this point in time, Rocket is starting to notice girls and smoking weed as he hangs out with his hippie friends. Some of his friends start to become more involved in the gangster life, like Benny. While Rocket is close to his friends, he never seems sure of how he fits in with the rest of the gangsters. Similar with the drug house, he seems to float between sides and interests. Both the suburb and Rocket have entered a teenager/young adult phase where they are rough and unsure of themselves. Both are starting to go down a certain path, but nothing is set yet.

In the end, Cidade de Deus becomes fully devoted to housing a never-ending gang war. There is no turning back it seems once the war has started. In fact, the cause of the fighting is forgotten within a year. Likewise, Rocket has fully become a man, selling his first photo to a newspaper and on his way to a professional career. While he does not forget his beginnings, he would like to. He sees a way out Cidade de Deus, but only goes back to solidify his success as a photographer by taking pictures of the gang war. Like the suburb, there is no turning back for him as he goes down his path of adulthood away from Cidade de Deus.

Favorite Scene: There are many great scenes. Probably the most memorable is the opening chase of a chicken through the street that ends with the chicken stopping in the street between Rocket and Li’l Zé’s gang, especially as it was featured in a lot of the advertising artwork for the film. Instead of the opening, I want to look at the emotionally draining scene that introduces the young gang known as “The Runts.”

In the scene, Rocket as the narrator introduces “The Runts” as a mischievous group of pre-teens that rob local businesses. This anarchy goes against Li’l Zé’s wishes of keeping peace in the neighborhood and avoiding police interference. Thus, Li’l Zé takes a few of his gang, including young Steak, to teach “The Runts” a lesson. “The Runts” are living it up, eating stolen food and talking about how they want to be like Li’l Zé someday, when Li’l Zé busts in and holds two of the members at gunpoint after the others have fled. Steak is forced to kill one of the kids to show his commitment to Li’l Zé and his gang.

Throughout the scene, the audience goes through an emotional rollercoaster from gaiety over the youngsters’ mischievous lifestyle to intense anxiety over which kid will be killed. Although the characters were just introduced, the audience still feels connected to them in some way. We don’t want to see them come to harm even though they are delinquents and deserve some form of punishment. This is evident from Rocket’s point of view as they are a pest that has disrupted his fun with his friends. But we also enjoy the fun that comes from there being no rules and eating from the literal fat of the spoils. This is the ideal image of a gang, all the riches of unlawfulness and protection from harm due to camaraderie.

The illusion is smashed halfway through, and we are put in Steak’s shoes. We see the flip side of young gang life, the expectation of what it means to join the gang. In Steak (and the audience) this leads to nervousness in having to shoot a defenseless person in cold blood. There is a moment of pausing as Steak hesitates, leading to more anxiety. Emotions are flipped and the harsh reality of gang life is exposed to the audience early enough in the film, so we better understand Rocket’s desire to get away over seeking revenge. Very few scenes in movies are this guttural emotionally due to a drastic switch in tone, but it is pulled off brilliantly in this film.

At the end of the day, City of God is one of the best gang movies from anywhere in the world as it gives a depiction of gang life in Rio de Janeiro through the decades. It expands the genre in narration and location, but you can still see the connection to earlier films of the genre. It is not a movie you just sit down and watch to relax; instead, you have to go in knowing that it will be an intense experience. As such I would not recommend it to everyone. In fact, it is on my list of movies that I am glad I have seen, but I do not have much desire to watch repeatedly. So, find the time to watch this movie and you will leave with a deeper understanding of the social and cultural aspect of gang life in Brazil.

There are tons of great gangster movies, each with famous quotable lines. To end this review, I have decided to go with one of the most quintessential gangster quotes, which comes from Goodfellas (1990) and is opposite to Rocket’s feelings. It is spoken at the beginning of the film by Henry Hill (portrayed by Ray Liotta) and sets up the flashback in the film similar to the opening of City of God.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”


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