The Brazilian film Cidade de Deus, based on a novel of the same name, presents a fictionalized account of true events that happened in a favela known as The City of God in Rio de Janeiro during the 1960s and 1970s. After becoming familiar with Brazilian favelas it is clear it is the focus of the film and misunderstandings within translations in the subtitles that lead to any perceived historical inaccuracies.
Though the term “favela” is translated as “ghetto”, Ney dos Santos Oliveira’s article explains that the two terms are not synonymous. Oliveira argues that ghettos in the United States are inhabited primarily by a certain race due to the former practice of segregation and are characterized by unemployment and substandard education whereas the favelas of Brazil are comprised of people of the same class background and carry stereotypes that are far less negative than those of ghettos. By using the term ghetto for the subtitles, English speaking audiences attach associations to the City of God that are inaccurate leading to the lack of understanding that Rocket not only wants to leave the favela, but that he also wants to rise above his station.
The narrative focuses on life within the drug trade to the extent that viewers may assume that it was the only option for income within the favela. In contrast Julio Cesar Pino’s article argues that many people living in the region at the time were legitimately employed in the service sector for the areas outside of the City of God or at a General Electric plant that had been established during the 1950s. Pino also states that many successful stores existed on the edge of the favela that “did considerable business with customers from the more prosperous neighborhoods nearby.” The film makes these to be the exception to the rule, with the only examples of outside employment being Knockout Ned’s job taking fares on the bus and Rocket’s employment delivering newspapers.
A central theme around which the film revolves is the culture of violence that has been established within the favela and the attempts of its citizens to break free of the cycle that draws them into crime. The difficulty of this task is illustrated by Knockout Ned who seems to have broken the cycle, but is pulled back to it by his decision to take revenge on Li’l Ze for raping his wife. Rocket’s efforts to leave the City of God are first shown by his working at a supermarket, but this attempt is cut short by losing his job. Rocket only succeeds in leaving by the chance publication of pictures that he took of Li’l Ze’s gang. This implies that leaving the City of God is not only rare, but only able to be accomplished through use of the gang culture itself. Though one may hope to improve the conditions of the favela through the betterment of one’s own situation, this hope is shown to be futile by the closing scene in which Li’l Ze is killed by a group of very young children who then take over his role within the drug trade. This illustrates Pino’s assertion that “although intergenerational social mobility is possible for some squatters, for every favelado who joins the proletariat several subproletarians assume his or her place.”