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City of God

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City of God is a movie set in the favelas (shantytowns) of Rio de Janeiro with a style that could be described as Tarantino crossed with Ken Loach - cartoon violence laced with social realism.

It is the story of drugs gangs, poverty and violence in Brazil's post-war modern slums.

As with Loach the director, Meirelles, used a largely new cast. Almost all of the actors are from a drama group for poor youths. They were trained in acting and improvisation for six months before the shooting the film.

The main narrator is Rocket. He takes us through the lives of a number of characters who get involved with the favela drug gangs and charts their involvement with his life from the 1960s. The City of God (Cidade de Deus) is an urban housing project built to move out the poor from the "picture postcard" districts of Rio.

Without proper construction and no maintenance it quickly turns into a slum. There is no electricity and no services, with only dirt tracks for roads but as Rocket says the rich and powerful don't care because now they are out of sight and out of mind. Meirelles himself said that the film is all about social exclusion.

The favelas of Brazil have grown up quickly over the last thirty years. In Rio a population of 5.8 million (about 20 per cent) are believed to live in these favelas. At the same time the gangs have grown up equally rapidly. There are an estimated 11,000 gang members in Rio of which about 50 per cent are under 18-years-old. The level of violence is appalling with 3,000 shot dead each year in Rio alone, a situation so bad that it is worse than in Colombia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone.

The mindless body count would not disgrace a Arnie Schwartzeneger film, but the violence is also used to great effetc. At one point the drug overlord Li'l Zé decides to put a stop to the activities of a small gang of street robbers, the Runts because there are no "rapes and robberies" on his turf. The Runts are only children but when drug gang catches up with them the punishment is vicious. Two of the youngest members are caught. They are shot in the foot and then Li'l Zé decides to blood one of his new recruits, telling him he has to choose which one of the two children to kill.

The film is at its best in revealing the contradictions of gang life. In the beginning the gang members just stick together for protection and to get money to survive. It shows the Robin Hood element of many gangs that start up in poor areas. When Rocket's brother and two friends hold up the gas delivery truck one of them shouts out to the locals gathering to watch 'who wants gas'. Immediately eager people unload the van of its canisters.

As the gangs become stronger they impose their own variety of discipline on the favela. The police do nothing so long as the drugs do not overstep the boundaries and venture into the middle class or rich areas of the city. Meanwhile corrupt police officials skim money off of the drug business and also make a killing by selling the gangs weapons. The favela gangs became so powerful that eventually the police could not enter. These 'no go' areas are occasionally visited by the police, and military, in 'invade and occupy' style raids. Yet this has only happened when the gangs started to act as a parallel state. As long as the gangs kept things under control in the poor areas the capitalist state could live with this.

Inside the favela the gangs do bring some kind of order. Some residents point out they have not been robbed for years. Not only this but in a number of the Rio favelas the most powerful gangs pay for public transport, clinics and even cultural centres.

Yet this goes hand in hand with complete control by the drug gangs. The exploitation of young women through prostitution is commonplace. Nobody is allowed to organise without the agreement of the gangs. They rule and the local drug overlord is the dictator. Meirelles shows this up for what it is, while Li'l Zé boasts there are no robberies or rapes in his area he himself commits rape.

However much gangs are born out of the survival and protection needs of the local population without mass participation and democratic organisation they become the self-seeking power base of the few in the interests of the few.

City of God's description of society at large is very bad especially as it will be an introduction to life in Brazil for many audiences. The question of the rich and poor runs seamlessly throughout the film but other questions are barley touched upon. The life of women is not dealt with. In fact the film doesn't develop the women characters at all. One, Angelica, is only shown when Rocket has a love interest in her and then when the 'cool' gangster Benny gets involved with her. After Benny is shot we see no more of her.

When the girlfriend of another character, Knockout Ned, is raped we follow his quest for revenge but we don't see anymore of her.
Racism is shown as we see a glimpse of the richer world at offices of the Rio paper where Rocket has a job. Rocket wants to be a photographer so after he finishes delivering papers he goes along to paper's photo lab where he knows one of the workers who used to live in the City of God. All of the staff at the offices are white but the irony is that Rocket, a young black man, manages to get an internship and work as a photographer for the paper. While the rest of the film shows the harsh reality of life in the favela at this point it becomes a fairy story of how Rocket is able to fulfil his dreams in becoming a photographer thanks to the benevolent attitudes of the middle classes which allows him to escape the City of God.

This is not accidental. Meirelles has said he made the film for the middle class. Meirelles may not have set out to make a film with a directly political message but City of God does tackle important social issues in Brazil.

It follows the Brazil of the last few decades yet during this time the most single important development in Brazil has been the rise of the workers movement and in particular the growth of the Partido Dos Trabalhadores (PT) which of course includes the election of Lula as President, an ex-metalworker.

There is not a single reference to this or to what any of the residents of the City of God think about this and this based on a city where the PT Governor, Benedita Da Silva, is a black woman who came from a favela and became a founding member of the PT through a struggle to get running water and electricity for her favela. Imagine making a social commentary film about a poor estate in Britain during the 1980s and forgetting to mention Prime Minister Thatcher and the class struggles of that decade!

His message is clear by omission the way to improve this situation is for the rich and the powerful to become benevolent and not that the way to deal with the grinding poverty facing the majority of Brazilians, whether or not they live in favelas is for the workers, the landless peasants and the urban poor to organise and take matters into their own hands.