Synopsis – The film is in three parts
The story of the Tender Trio
In the City of God, one of the slums on the hills above Rio de Janeiro, Buscape (Rocket) wants to be a photographer. He runs into Ze Pequeno (Little Ze) and his armed gang of children (the Runts). He tells the stories of the City in flashback beginning in the 1960s when his brother Marreco (Goose) together with Cabeleira (Shaggy) and Alicate (Clipper) are known as The Tender Trio. They are amateur petty thieves who plan to rob a brothel, the Miami Motel. They take Dadinho (Little Dice), the 9-year-old friend of Shaggy’s brother Bene, along to act as lookout. The robbery ends in a massacre. The Trio split up. Shaggy hides in Lucia Maracana’s house. He is very attracted to her daughter Berenice. Goose meets and flirts with the wife of Paraiba (Shorty). Shorty catches them in bed together. Goose runs away and finds Bene and Little Dice hiding out in an unfinished building. Shorty buries his wife alive, the police take him away. Shaggy and Berenice hijack a car at gunpoint. The car packs up. The police shoot Shaggy. A man takes photographs of the body. Rocket is envious of his camera.
The story of Little Ze
The story moves forward to the 1970s. Rocket, still a virgin, takes photographs of his friends ‘the Groovies’ on the beach. He fancies Angelica but she has a boyfriend Thiago who has graduated from smoking dope to snorting coke. Rocket goes to the apartment where Neguinho (Blacky) sells dope. Little Dice swaggers in. He has changed his name to Little Ze. He murdered the customers at the brothel and later killed Goose. At 18 he is in the drugs business, having killed all of the other dealers in the city except Sandro Cenoura (Carrot). Bene still attempts to keep Little Ze under control advocating negotiation rather than murder. Bene meets the Groovies and admires Thiago’s style. He bleaches his hair, gets new clothes and transforms himself into a playboy. After loosing his job at the Supermarket Rocket decides to do some hold ups with his friend Barbantinho (Stringy). They board a bus planning to rob the fare collector Mane Galinha (Knockout Ned). Ned, who is against violence, advises them to study and get out of the City. They don’t go through with the robbery. Bene and Angelica are in love. They plan to leave the City and live a life of peace in the country. At Bene’s farewell party Ze is angry that his close friend is giving up the hood’s life for a woman. An argument breaks out and they struggle amongst the dancers. Blacky, aiming to kill Ze, accidentally shoots Bene. Little Ze is jealous of Knockout Ned and wants Ned’s girlfriend. His gang hold Ned down whilst Ze rapes her.
The story of Knockout Ned
Ned goes home in anguish. Ze goes to his house to kill him. His gang kill Ned’s father, uncle and brother. Carrot comes by and offers Ned a gun and Ned takes it. Although at first Ned does not want violence he and Carrot become involved in all out gang war with Ze, robbing banks and killing in order to buy bigger and better weapons. Rocket gets a job delivering newspapers, going to the newspaper offices at night where he has a friend in the photo lab. The war continues with children fighting on both sides. A boy Otto joins Carrots gang. Ned is wounded and arrested. Ze sees the TV news where Ned is being interviewed as a celebrity. He is furious that he is not seen as the boss of the city. Thiago fetches Rocket who takes pictures of Ze posing with his gang. Marina, who works for the newspaper, finds the photos. Rocket sees his photographs on the front page of the newspaper. He thinks Ze will kill him. The journalists want Rocket to take more pictures. Rocket can’t go back to the City, it’s too risky. He has nowhere to sleep. Marina takes him back to her apartment where he takes his first hot shower and has his first sexual experience. Carrot and his gang spring Ned from the hospital. There is a pitched battle between the gangs and Rocket takes pictures for the newspaper. Ned is killed. Ze tries to round up the Runts to restart his business. They shoot him, the business is theirs! Rocket takes pictures of the body. The photograph makes the front page. He is now Wilson Rodrigues, photographer.
City of God is an example of Brazilian national cinema. It is also an international film that secured worldwide distribution through Miramax, a major distributor that has a reputation for distributing independent films, the most famous examples are films by Quentin Tarantino, and films such as The Piano and The Crying Game. Miramax is now owned by Disney. It illustrates the comparative accessibility of World Cinema, a label that previously denoted only a limited distribution in art cinemas of films made known through their success in film festivals. Its success can be examined through its relationship to mainstream cinema in terms of production values, genre and narrative. In examining its popularity, especially among film-goers between 18 and 25, it is necessary to consider how far City of God use recognisable genre features and transport them to different and more colourful locations. However recognisable these genre features might be the themes of the film and concerns of the characters are in many ways very specific to their setting.
Comparisons have been made with Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction but neither of these films actually deal with social problems or issues. The reputation gained by City of God was for much part that of a film that reveals the true facts about poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endemic nature of the violence that accompanies it. Given the publicity it received, the nature of some of the rave reviews and the stated intention of the film-makers it can be studied as a political film with a message. At the same time it relies heavily on the artificiality of cinematic techniques and a complex narrative structure, not the realist style formerly associated with films about social deprivation (for example Sweet Sixteen). As such it enters into the debate around the form that a film’s messages should take, and whether such films should contain suggestions as to the possible origin and remedy of the social inequality they represent.
The film director
Fernando Meirelles had directed one previous film, and was a director of commercials for a Brazilian advertising agency, O2. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, a long 700 page multi-character novel described as ‘Dickensian’. It uses amateur actors who were recruited from the favelas and encouraged to improvises to give the film authenticity.
Filming took place entirely in the slums. It was was financed by TV Globo, Brazil’s biggest TV channel, and 02 Filmes. The success of the film led to a TV mini-series Cidode dos Homens I City of Men set in the Dona Martela favela and featuring the same actors. An estimated 35 million viewers watched the first series. Together with co-director Katia Lund he started the organisation ‘Nos do cinema I ‘We of the Cinema. This is a workshop project for boys from the favelas. The film cost about $3m to make and has taken around $30m at the box office worldwide.
City of God uses narrative in a complex way, manipulating the timeframe, and using a narrator to lead the audience through the film. This kind of narrator is known as homodiegetic – he is inside the narrative narrating in the first person. The narrative doesn’t fall easily into the usual theory. There is certainly three parts to the film, but they don’t really fit Sid Field’s theory of a start, middle and end. The start after all is a sequence that actually heralds the end of the film, and apart from being a dramatic sequence that serves to engage the audience, it guarantees an understanding of the changed circumstances of the city, and makes the antics of the Tender Trio look rather tame compared with the later action.
Todorov’s theory of an equilibrium, followed by a disequilibrium, then a new equilibrium could be applied. The original equilibrium of the tame amateur gangsterism of the Tender Trio is disrupted by the rapid escalation of violence that follows the Miami Hotel raid and the jump forward in time to the 70s where we see a grown up Lil Ze, and the true events of the night at the Miami Hotel are shown. This then proceeds to the new equilibrium at the end where we see Lil Ze being assinated by the Runts – a new generation of kids re-claiming the streets, except that instead of being shown playing football they’re planning who they’re going to kill off next!
Roland Barthes theories of action and enigma codes can easily be applied, remember that Barthes said that there are two ways of creating suspense in narrative, the first caused by unanswered questions, the second by the anticipation of an action’s resolution – there are numerous examples of actions which lead to a re-action such as:
- The Tender Trio’s raid on the Miami Hotel in a desire to become more serious gangsters leads to the deaths of Shaggy and Goose and eventually reveals Lil Ze’s true character.
- Bene’s decision to leave the gangster’s life leads to his death.
- Ned’s decision to seek revenge on his brother’s death leads to him joining Carrot’s gang and his eventual death.
- The killing of the security guard, who turns out to be Otto’s father, also leads to Ned’s death.
- The desire for Lil Ze to have his picture taken leads to them fetching Rocket, whose photos are published and he not only gets a jobs as a photographer but loses his virginity (at last) to Marina
The are also numerous narrative enigma – unanswered questions – that mislead the audience.
- The opening sequence is that of a relaxed street party which leads to a confrontation, and when re-played at the end of the film turns into a massacre.
- The Miami Hotel raid massacre eventually turns out to be Lil Ze’s first act of mass violence.
- Bene’s meeting with Thiago leads to the bike race, which we assume will end in violence, but actually ends in Bene buying trainers and clothes and getting a more modern image.
- Rocket and Stringy’s abortive attempt to hold up a car, and coming across a kindly driver who befriends them, leads to the scene where the police find a body by the roadside, and we assume that Rocket and Stringy have succumbed to violence and killed the driver, but then the car drives past with Rocket and Stringy still inside.
We can also apply Claude Levi-Strauss’ theory of binary opposites – the idea that the constant creation of conflict/opposition propels narrative – to the film. Remember that these opposites can be anything, some examples in City of God are:
- The contrast between the city as a glamorous tourist destination and the povert and deprivation in the slums that surround it.
- The portrayal of the City of God in the 60s, the bright lighting and wide open spaces, and the dark, grey closed in slum at the end.
- The conflict between the police and the gangsters.
- The conflict between honesty and dishonesty.
- The conflict between the values of the women – who invariably want their men to settle down and lead a ‘normal’ life, and the men, who are invariably looking for reasons not to!
- The opposites of the camera and the gun, which is one of the main themes of the film.
Our old friend Propp can’t be left out here, but it is more difficult to apply to City of God than Sweet Sixteen. Rocket is obviously the hero, and Ze the villain. Marina could be the helper, or even fairy godmother. Bene could be the donor, because it’s through him that Rocket aquires the camera. Maybe Ned is a false hero? As for the functions of the character, there are numerous examples, but they don’t appear in the same order that Propp suggests!
The film also employs numerous diegetic narrative devices to help us along, such as newspaper headlines, photographs, TV interviews and music:
- Newspaper headlines tell us what Shorty did to his wife ‘Man buries wife alive in City of God’ and at the nd ‘The Self Styled Boss of the City of God is Dead’
- Rockets photographs taken on the beach act as a signifier of his feelings for Angelica and his relationship with the gang of Groovies. Later his photos earn him his passage out of the slum.
- The TV interview with Ned – which is seen by Rocket and Lil Ze and acts as a trigger for Ze to send for Rocket to show who’s the real boss.
- Bene dancing to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ signifies his new found image, and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ being played at Bene’s farewell is ironic considering what happens there.
The film also uses ‘Montage editing’ to powerful effect. Montage editing is the way shots are put together to clash with each other and produce shocks, rather than smooth continuity. Think of the very first shots you see, the knife being sharpened on a stone, followed by a black screen, repeated 5 times in quick succession. Compare that with the dreamy opening sequence of Sweet Sixteen. The shots of the guitar playing and the samba rhythm then contrast with shots of a nervous looking chicken watching his mates having their neck sliced and his eventual escape.
In contrast a different kind of editing is used in ‘The Story of the Apartment’ where we are placed as a kind of ‘voyeur’ or spectator watching what goes on and how the apartment changes over time, all from a wide angle viewpoint and deep focus which give an exaggerated perspective with characters appearing large in the foreground, small in the background. The story is told with a series of dissolves where people appear, disappear and reappear in different parts of the room. The walls change colour, the lighting gets darker and darker, and the apartment becomes more and more scruffy. The apartment starts off looking like someone’s home, and ends up looking like a crack den. Initially there is a woman, Dona Zelia, whos seems to occupy the apartment as a drug dealer and prostitute, but in time she disappears with no explanation, like all the other women in the film. The impact of Mise-en-Scene is profound here, with the film makers using the changes in settings as a signifier of the descent of it’s occupants deeper and deeper into squalor.
Split screen is used to show two episodes at the same time, and many sequences are shown twice changing our perception or filling in missing information, for example:
- The image that we see at the beginning of Rocket behind the grill only becomes when at the end he is shown taking the shots of Ze bribing the police through the grilled window.
- The chicken chase at the beginning is firstly seen as rather comical, but the second time it leads to a massacre.
- After the scene of Bene telling Ze he’s leaving we see an ols sepia photograph of them when they were kids together.
- The Miami Hotel raid is shown twice, once when the Tender Trio escape farcically in a stolen car that they can’t drive and eventually crash into shorty’s bar, then late when Ze shoots at the window because he’s bored before cold-bloodedly killing all the customers.
- Goose finding Lil Dice and bene in the construction site is replayed a second toime showing Goose being shot.
- The bank shoot out where Ned kills the bank worker is seen again showing Otto present, leading to his revenge killing of Ned after he joins the gang.
The characters and representation
In managing to extricate himself from the slum Rocket, despite his explosive and fiery name, represents hope. His is the character that escapes the trap of poverty and violence and his soothing voice often acts as an antidote to the violence on the screen. The shot of him in the opening sequence is symbolic in that throughout the film he remains the outsider caught between the police and the gangs. We sympathise with him because he is hopeless at football, crime, getting a girlfriend and fails to take revenge for his brother’s murder. At Bene’s farewell he is apart from the crowd, up on the stage helping the DJ. He tries to lead a normal life, in the supermarket, and delivering the newspapers. He does escape, but only because he is able to exploit his connections in the slum. His role in the film is symbolised by the shot at the end of the opening sequence, showing him trapped between the gang and the police, not part of either faction.
In contrast, Lil Ze represents hoplessness. We know that there is no way out for him except through death. He starts off as a bullying child, then a killer child, with no fear or conscience. He assumes control and power through violence, but his motivation is not through greed, he doesn’t show any ambition to leave the apartment, but by pure evil. He seems to have no redeeming features, nothing that we can identify with, and the only occasion when we feel slightly sorry for him, at Bene’s farewell when he is rejected by girls who he asks to dance, is followed by the violent rape of Ned’s girlfriend. He kills Tuba just because he talks too much. He dies when a child shoots him, a legacy of his own infantile violence.
Bene is the opposite of Ze, and is a representation of a good gangster. A man with a conscience who tries to curb some of Ze’s violent behaviour. He is both charming and popular, and although he witnesses violence we don’t see him committing any murders. Unlike Ze he is drawn to a life outside the slum, initially through contact with Thiago and the trappings of new clothes, then he dyes his hair to make him look more European. Like his brother Shaggy, who died when his girlfriend persuaded him to leave the slum, Bene’s relationship with Angelica changes him and leads to his death, which is bound up with the rejection of Ze’s values. In leaving his psychopathic friend he is leaving hi without any restraining forces and unleashes more terrible forces.
Knockout Ned is drawn into the Carrots gang to avenge the death of his brother and father and rape of his girlfriend. He is the only one of the four leading characters not seen as a child, and has seen life outside the slum, as a soldier and bus driver. He is the stereotypical tragic hero forced to use his skills on his quest for retribution. Initially he tries to tone down Carrots violence, insisting that no innocent people are shot, but the rules have to be broken, the irony is that it is Ned’s exception to the rule which causes his eventual death at the hands of Otto. He is the one destructive character who seems to retain some humanity. He is visibly moved by Steak n’Fries death and it his mourning over the body that leads to him being shot and captured by the police.
Carrot’s character is an enigma itself, we know nothing of his background – surely in the book all the characters were thoroughly developed. His function in the narrative is sketchy but crucial. He is the instigator of Ned’s downfall. He is ruthless, killing Aristotle who he thought of as a brother. He is white, but most of his gang members are black, which emphasises the lack of any particular racial issues in the story. The Tender Trio represent a different age. They have no nominated boss, they do things together, their guns are toys, accessories to their bravado. They are amateurs. The film centres on the aggressive definition of masculinity. The female characters have passive and peripheral roles, they are there to be recipients of male violence and are attacked murdered and raped. None of the women, apart from Marina, have pivotal roles.
Ideology, Values, Institution
“If you run away they’ll get you and if you stay, they’ll get you too.”
Violence is the main driving force of the film. Shootings, beatings and rape form the core of the action. But the film’s attitude to violence is a means to an end for the film maker’s main motivation for making the film – the wish for social change. It shows that the favelas are a breeding ground for this violence because the people have no hope of achieving anything other than through violence, however, apart from a brief reference to a flood being the cause of an influx of people the film makers do not provide any political reference points or background – the ‘sixties’, the ‘seventies’ are just chapter headings that don’t explain what was going on in Brazilian society that created these slums.
The film does have simple lessons to learn – if you live by the gun you die by the gun, if you avoid violence and retain some honest values and ambitions you escape. The film’s ending is on the one hand positive – Rocket is saved, but on the other hand the Runts are a more violent gang than ever. These are simplistic and stereotype the slum dwellers – presumably the majority of people are still trying to scrape some kind of honest living but you don’t see many examples of those except on the fringe of the plot.
The institutions backing the film had originally intended the film just for the Brazilian market, but the film’s success at Film Festivals gave it a life of its own, and Mierelles has used the film’s unprecedented success as a platform for to focus the world’s attention on the darkness of Rio’s slums, one of the most violent and dangerous places in South America. The film could not have been the commercial success it was without the backing of Miramax, the film distribution company, but remember Miramax is a commercial company, part of the Disney Corporation, who do not do things for charity, the people behind Miramax – the Weinstein brothers – must have spotted a commercial opportunity in the film.