What I find most commendable about The City of God is its realistic depiction of the city where poverty and violence and crime reek so strongly simultaneously people just get acquainted with them in the long run.
At the beginning of the movie, we already have an unknown preview of the life in the City of God. A chicken is being cooked, its feathers being removed while another chicken, probably the next in line is anxious while seeing the fate of the first chicken. At the same time, a swift series of shots showing a knife being sharpened, carrots being cut by the knife and the “cooking operation” being done on the first chicken which causes the anxiety of the second. The congruence among these shots is very telling, very metaphorical to the City of God: the swift pace of life, or the need thereof, and the presence of danger, of numerous risks that one needs to take and overcome, that if someone is neither swift enough nor courageous to take and undergo the risks, he might as well look for another place to live in; that is, if there is one. Sullenly, it seems that there is not much privilege of a choice in the City of God, so one just need to live and deal with the frenetic and dangerous pace in it. One needs to be so if he wants to stay alive, just like the anxious, second chicken who managed to get out of the leash and avoid being cooked over the beaming fire.
And when we get to the first dialogue in the film, our initial impressions may have just been reinforced. A black, curly man whom we will identify as Lil Ze later said, “Fuck,” the chicken’s got away. Go after that chicken, man! (translations).” We heard it first, a swear word, which will suffuse in our ears as the movie goes on. And then the command to go after the chicken, who has barely escaped from death and now has another danger to face. Welcome to the City of God, where your life is always on the brink and you have to push hard, take risks, and yes, sell drugs, take drugs and kill people just to stay alive.
As the flashback begun, cutting from the instance when Rocket was caught on the crossfire between the notorious hoodlums of the City of God and the police, we were led to a protracted tale of violence and unprecedented criminality in the city.
First, the story of the Tender Trio whose lawless ways are even sophomoric compared to what we will see in the next parts of the story. Discreetly, it shows the subtle rule in the hood. With Benny and Lil Dice (the young Lil Ze) tagging along the trio, we see how age is highly regarded; and expectedly, the youngsters always have to take the back seat and cannot have their say in the talks of the older ones. The trio’s story ended with Clipper going back to the church, Goose, Rocket’s brother getting killed by the gone-bold Lil Dice and Shaggy being killed by the police. On the other hand, Lil Dice had decided to go on his own way, separate from the Tender Trio. He worked hard with his pal Benny in the field of crime. When the Tender Trio was collapsing, marked by Lil Dice’s killing of Goose, Lil Dice felt that his turn to become the “boss of the City of God” has arrived. As such, when he turned 18 and established himself as one of the most notorious hood in the city, he sought for an inauguration of sorts, a baptism that will dramatize the shift he wants to happen with his image – from the young, inexperienced Lil Dice to the tougher and slyer Lil Ze. Then the rampant killings have become normal killings. He took over the illegal businesses in the city, whose illegalities are even out of the question, because during that time, the City has blossomed into a place that has devised its own laws. And that law can sort of borrow Darwin’s “survival of the fittest;” and to survive, one needs to be loaded, with cash and guns, and the right connections.
And so Lil Ze got Blacky’s drug business, ensuring he got loaded and maintaining his status as the most sought-after person to connect oneself with, or more aptly, to avoid messing with, if one wants to stay unharmed in the city.
Then it turned out that the battle between Lil Ze and Carrot for supremacy in the City has silently started. The runts, little kids who do petty crimes, and who do not respect the law of the slums, were subjected to the wrath of Lil Ze, who apparently has become the boss of the city and the one setting the law in the City of God.
This battle peaked after Benny’s death, something that had the potential of changing Lil Ze’s perspective in life but did not happen. Benny planned to depart from Lil Ze and go with Angelica, who has become so sick of the violence in the City of God. Here, we see a crucial paradigm shift. Angelica offered an alternative to Benny, ”Peace and Love” which he accepted by being willing to go with her. In telling this plan to Lil Ze, Benny once and for all made an implicit judgment of the life Lil Ze has been living, “Everyone’s a motherfucker to you!” This can be read as Benny’s condemnation of the grim and heartless life of Lil Ze. And then Benny got killed by Blacky, who actually aimed at Lil Ze. Benny’s death pained Lil Ze, and yes, he felt pain. Perhaps he tried to heed his advice, as he tried to go after the girl she first saw in the disco bar, Knockout Ned’s girl. She ignored him, goes to Ned, only to frustrate Lil Ze and impelled him to rape her and made him think of killing Ned. Eventually, he ended up killing Knockout Ned’s father and uncle. And then Knockout Ned’s plan of revenge, teaming up with Carrot against Lil Ze which resulted to the all-out was between the two groups. This war has intensified to the point of attracting the media’s attention and paving the way for Rocket’s success story as a photographer.
Now, what do we make out of this?
The realistic depiction is there: the young runts naturally talking about selling drugs and aspiring to get into that business, the bloodshed during the all-out war, Carrot’s effortless killing of Blacky after he killed Benny which is no different from the way Lil Ze killed Tuba later in the movie. However, I found it problematic that this depiction of a lived hell unabashedly showing us the naturalized marriage of guns and young kids and bullets and bodies has been seemingly overshadowed by another impression: the idealistic potential of success to emerge from this living hell. This can be misleading. It seems to drive away the viewer’s attention from the more important point of the story: the difficulty of life in the City of God. It should be argued that Rocket’s success story was merely an exception to the rule, a digression from the norm, the usual life in the City of God. And it occurred because of yes, hard work, and the right attitude and a bit of luck, perhaps. But not everyone gets to have that. In an impoverished community like the City of God, where killings and robbery have become THE way of life, the problem is not the lack of hard work or the right attitude of people.
These factors are also conditioned by the very situation they find themselves in. the problem is not that everyone is not like Rocket, the problem is that people do not recognize why some people like Rocket has to stand out to exemplify the possibility of success in a slum area. The problem is that people do not fully fathom the similar situation which prods them to commit crimes, kill people nonchalantly and live in a community covered with hatred and terror and rancor.
The brutality and harshness in the City of God have appeared inherent, normal in it, when they are not. Brutality and killings and crime have sprung because people do not have food; they do not live a decent life. And perhaps, resorting to robbery and other crimes seemed to them the only possible thing to do if they want to survive the days.
Hence, the poverty, the despondence battening in the City of God should not be the mere starting point of our analysis. If we do that, we will naturally arrive at the conclusion that indeed, Rocket’s story was a successful one, a beautiful exception that emerged out of the dark and desolate (seeming) norm in the City of God. We should recognize that the emergence of this despondence in even the notorious City of God to begin with, is not something that is already there. It has its own causes. And the movie exceptionally brings us closer to the darkness and difficulty of living in the City of God. While Rocket’s case should serve as an inspiration, we should not dwell too much on that decoy. It turns our attention away from the more vital point of discussion – the very existence of City of God, a land rife with crime and the hard life they have been normalized in the long run and its being a product of violent relations among groups of people on the society nearly forgotten.
Which we should not.