City of God

City of God is a 2002 Brazilian film depicting the rise of gang violence in neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The story is based on real life events, and all the characters were real people. While there are several different story lines occurring throughout the film, the main conflict is the gang war between the competing gang leaders Lil Ze and Knockout Ned. The story itself is told and narrated from the point of view of the lead protagonist Rocket, a young boy and aspiring photographer who does his best to stay out of the violence that fills his immediate world.

While City of God is undoubtedly conveying a political message, the film itself stays entirely in the favela and generally avoids any reference to Brazilian society at large. The one exception to this is when Rocket stays the night with the reporter from the paper and he comments that he has never had a hot shower. Before this scene it was never really mentioned how poor Rocket was, it was just taken for granted that was how they lived. This desperate level of poverty is what gives rise to the gangs in the first place, as Julio Cesar Pino writes in Labor in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, “Many inhabitants of the favela participated in the informal economy part of the time because salaries from regular jobs did not provide sufficient benefits to sustain the family.” This combined with high levels of unemployment leads to the youth and young males just sitting around with nothing to do. Pino further comments, “Disparities in employment and income engendered bitter disputes among favelados. First, nearly one-quarter of the economically active population was unemployed.”

In the City of God, this leads to young men grouping together and turning to crime, be they either Lil Ze, Carrot, or the Runts. All these groups then come into competition over the relatively small opportunity to exploit their area of town. In their case, Knockout Ned’s good looks is a slight to Lil Ze’s honor and command over his own favela. The war that follows leads to more and more people being killed by other uneducated and poor young people. Throughout the film it seems more and more obvious that the violence and fighting is done simply because there is nothing else to do, and it is what is expected out of them both by themselves, and the police that will move into the favela.

Ney dos Santos Oliveira talks at great lengths in Favelas and Ghettos Race and Class in Rio de Janeiro and New York City about the political organization of the favela’s and their inhabitants, but such a phenomenon is not present in City of God. The only organization and community leaders are the gangs themselves. These gangs are led and consist of young men. In fact, there are few examples of men living in their forties in the favela. Gangs like the Runts and Lil Ze are brought up on violence, and unlikely to live a long life and stay out of jail. Therefore, any potential in the community of organizing itself is likely gone as one generation simply takes the place of the one before it that just died. This continues to be a real problem facing Brazil as Oliveira writes that between 1980 and 1991, the favela population in the municipality of Rio de Janerio increased by 53 percent.

Overall, City of God is an outstanding film that address a very serious problem for any society that has high levels of poverty and worries about corruption. Even if it weren’t based on a true story, City of God would still have a powerful social commentary to offer.