By Sydney Holt
After seeing City of God screened at the CSUN Cinematique, I was impressed by strong my emotional connection to each character was amidst such a violent film…
City of God chronicles the turbulent lives of residents of a Rio slum over thirty turbulent years. Director Fernando Meirelles takes a neorealist approach to telling their story—allowing the viewer to empathize with victims of a corrupt system while simultaneously feeling disgust at witnessing their brutal acts of survival. Meirelles adeptly combines simple devices including a first-person narrator, sensationalized violence and quick editing to craft a story rife with heartbreak and struggle.
In City of God, Rocket serves as the narrator and the only character worthy of the viewer’s trust. As a neighborhood boy, he gives the viewer the chance to play bystander in the hectic favelas of Rio. He constantly ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and involved in critically important events between the feuding gangs. At the climax of the film, Rocket leads the audience directly into the battle between Knockout Ned and Carrot versus Li’l Dice. Through Rocket’s eye (the camera lens) the feud appears absurd and pointless. Children have rallied on both sides hoping for their chance to overthrow the dealers thus becoming the next ruler of the slums. The viewer is forced to consider, based on this scene alone, if the characters are beyond redemption.
It is Rocket’s voice-over narration and ability to jump between stories to explain the intricacies of these characters allows for the humanization of the antagonists. Through this technique, the film is also able to preach against the cyclical violence plaguing the favela. Rocket explains how Knockout Ned began his crusade seeking revenge for the sexual assault of his wife by Li’l Dice. Knockout Ned’s descent into gang life is hard to watch because of what Rocket shares about his past: Ned was originally an upstanding member of his community and an outspoken advocate against the gangs. Additionally, Li’l Dice begins and ends as a murderer, but Rocket is able to let his barely existent humanity seep through when he witnesses Benny, Li’l Dice’s best friend, being murdered. The use of a first-person narrator for this film creates a powerfully emotional and connected experience for the viewer.
The graphically violent scenes create a Tarantino-esque element of this film that heavily contribute to Meirelles’ story, but resonate in a way different than the films of indie cinema’s golden boy. When Li’l Dice asks the young boy to pick which of his peers to kill, the violence seems unimaginably cruel, but real. Like Tarantino, Meirelles does not shy away from gory, unspeakable violence. However, Meirelles finds a justification for his violence: to show how corrupt the favela’s had become. The viewer feels the same shock and awe of a Tarantino film, but City of God reveals a humanity and understanding that Tarantino´s work seems to lack. These stories are horrific and heartbreaking, but they maintain a foundation in reality, not the cartoonish worlds that Tarantino creates.
The bloody, brutal diegetic world of City of God manages to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the characters through the narrative style. The visual style of City of God features many cuts that mirror the instability of life in Rocket’s community. In the climax of the film, Rocket dodges bullets before jumping behind a store front that protects him from the flying bullets. The sequence continues as he chases after Li’l Dice and Carrot and then as the police drive them away. Each compelling shot is perfectly timed. Rocket runs … and runs … and finally catches up to the car … leading to one of my favorite shots in the film. On camera, with his viewfinder showing, Rocket quickly captures the murder of Li’l Dice by The Runts. The shots shift between Rocket’s reaction and his viewfinder at a pace that captures the chaos of that moment. I felt this theme and style extended beyond the scenes and to the broader structure and pace of the film. Each decade was dealt with quickly and the effect created a deeper understanding of many problems plaguing the community: how short lives could begin and how quickly they could end; how bad the worst moments felt; and, how many did not have the luxury of appreciating the beauty of each moment.
In conclusion, Rocket’s unique, first-person narration of his experience in the favelas of Rio, the use of heavy violence, and the quick editing complement each other in a touching way that expands past better know directors including Quentin Tarantino, whose use of violence feels sensationalized in a world that is overflowing with angst thus rendering false narratives shallow.