The film is set in the ghettos of the City of God and shows the struggles that face the youth. They can either live a life by the law, even though the system is corrupted, or live a life in the gangs that rule the streets. In the opening scenes of the film, Rocket, is seen caught in the streets with the police on one side and a gang on the other. It is a very telling scene for that is how his life would play out, caught in the middle.
The film is told in six segments, or stories (Hart 204). In telling the story this way, the view gets an in depth picture into the background and history of the characters and a glimpse into how important early decisions became for the youth of the City of God.
For Rocket, from an early age he was surrounded by the influence of the streets. His own brother, Goose, was involved in a gang and Rocket saw the conflict that it created within his family, but he also saw the money that his brother’s gain made and even how they shared it with those in the ghetto. At first, in the film there seemed to be a “Robin Hood” persona around the gain as they high jacked a fuel truck and tried to fuel to those in need in the ghetto. Rocket tries to do what it right and gets a job at a supermarket but he is fired for associating with a young gang of boys called “The Runts.” Interestingly enough that segment of the film is entitled “The Sucker’s Life” alluding to the idea that a life of work was the lesser of the two choices and that trying to get ahead in life was a “sucker’s” choice (Hart 204). After he loses his job, Rocket tries his hand in a life of crime but he did not have the heart to commit the violence necessary for success.
Rocket’s dream had always been to become a photographer and living in such a volatile area, once he obtains a camera and takes a highly sought after photo of the lead gain leader, he gets offered a job at a local newspaper. As he pursues further photos of Li’l Ze, the gain leader, he finds himself in a position to takes photos that capture the involvement of the corrupt police department and their dealings with the gangs, as well as, the next up and coming gang comprised of young youth, indicating the cycle of violence, corruption and gangs would continue.
The film was based upon a novel, Cidade de Deus: Romance, which was based upon a true story (Hart 205). The purpose of the novel was to “offer a vision of the subaltern sections of society to a literate audience,” which is to say, to show people how those of lower status lived “on the other side of the tracks” (Hart 205). Hart says that the depiction of life in the City of God was very “authentic” (205).
Hart says that the film contains all of the “hallmarks” that described the “subaltern class” as “a violent, voiceless, illiterate group of murderers living in a shanty town near Rio de Janeiro” (206). The first gang encountered, “The Tender Trio,” were not portrayed in such a violent way. True they robbed and stole, but they did no harm. The same can not be said for Li’l Ze’s gang. It reeked of violence. Hart reaffirms this saying, “Li’l Ze epitomizes the subaltern in that his conduct transgresses all norms of social propriety” (Hart 206). Perhaps the most heinous of events was the harassment of the two small boys who belonged to “The Runts,” whom he terrorized, ending in the death of one.
Oliveira says that the term “ghetto” often refers to a certain stereotype of people and place, alluding to “decay and abandonment of neighborhoods, crime, sub-standard education, unemployment, the decline of ‘family values’” (72-73). What is interesting is that the he points out the word “ghetto” is usually a term to refer to places within the United States and that in Brazil, favela is a different word that holds a less negative stereotype (Oliveira 73). The film used the word “ghetto” over and over and it did leave the impression that the area in which the story took place was a place of poverty, full of rough and wild people.
Hart point out, “What this film does address is the way in which the lives of the subaltern classes are manipulated by the mediatic, governmental and law-enforcing powers within society” (206). It is true even today those areas that are considered to be “ghetto” are usually rougher than those considered to be suburbs. The film pointed out that the local police, who were portrayed at first as those trying to stop the crime in the area, were really a part of the problem, as seen by the end of the movie when their illegal acts were exposed. Corruption seems to gather and feed off of itself making it hard for those to survive who choose another way of life. For Rocket, his saving grace was photography, but Hart says that even that was affected by race and class. He says, “The film is very clear on this point: as a result of his ability to take photographs – that is, produce images which are appetizing to the middle-class press – Rocket escapes his roots in the City of God” (Hart 207).
Oliveira says, “Cities are an arena in which intense struggles over race, ethnicity, gender, and class are played out…,” and the film definitely portrays the struggles of race, ethnicity and class (79). The film is a picture of the struggle for survival, survival of the fittest. When one gang dies out another is there to take its place. The impact of the favela was clear in the film and Oliveira points out that even though it contains less than 20 percent of the population Brazil, favelas contain “prominent elements of the national urban fabric” (Oliveira 79).
The film portrays the gang life as an option that faced many living in the City of God. Pino suggests a reason for this is because “Rio de Janeiro from 1940 to 1969 experienced rapid urbanization and a decline in the importance of industry to the local economy (18). While there did seem to be options, Rocket and his brother walked the streets selling fish, the options were not portrayed as offering the income or lifestyle that gang life offered. Pino supports this also when he says, “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” (31).
The City of God, as described by Hart, was a place where “war, hatred and chaos are the order of the day” (207). He points out the irony of such a realization of a city with such a name. The film is a large success in driving this sad point home.