Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

The New Classics: hard times in the ‘City of God’

Among the library’s many overlooked cinematic gems is directors Fernando Meirelles’ and Kátia Lund’s ‘City of God,’ the 2002 Brazilian drama that took the world by storm for its naked portrayal of blood- and power-thirsty juvenile crime in its port city of Rio de Janeiro.

The movie is teeming with blood, violence and horror that makes you question the vulnerability of life itself. In the words of film critic Stephen Holden, “it reminds us that the civilized society we take for granted is actually a luxury.”

Indeed, the movie is frightening not for the already unsettling fact of murder, but for the gut-wrenching knowledge of the mere age of the perpetrators.

Spanning two decades, none of the film’s characters surpass the age of 25.   The majority of them are under the age of 16. The most telling quote of the film comes from a boy named Steak & Fries: “I smoke, I snort. I’ve killed and robbed,” he says, concluding with obligatory qualification, “I’m a man.”

Drugs, guns, larceny and misogyny lace Rocket’s quest to free himself from the slum’s inexplicably alluring grasp. The clash between innocence and reality is palpable from the movie’s onset, when a hoard of little boys runs after a chicken who has escaped the fate of a roast. The catch: one by one, each of the boys whips out a Cougar Magnum in an effort to prove their shot accuracy to Li’l Zé, the murderous psychopathic drug lord of the slum, by being the first to shoot their lunch.

With the slight exception of Rocket, the movie’s narrator, who, in the end, finds his calling in the form of photojournalism, all of the slum-born characters seek ultimate hoodlum-ness. Contemporary gangsta rap portraying hard life in the Brooklyn and Compton ghettos could not begin: if they tried: to describe life in the City of God. In effect, the movie will leave you with new definitions for the words “hustler,” “thug,” and “dealer”: words wholly desensitized by hip-hop and rap.

The story itself, awkwardly presented with a hint of lightheartedness: obviously serving a profound purpose of contrast: is told as an anecdote:
A tactless triumvirate of hoodlums, who call themselves “The Tender Trio,” terrorize local businesses via holdup in order to feed a “hustler” lifestyle. One night, the trio decides to hold up a motel and pillage its occupants. They designate the youngest of the bunch, Li’l Dice: who will later change his name to Li’l Zé: to hold the lookout and fire a warning shot when the cops neared. Li’l Dice keeps his word, but against Goose’s, another member of the trio and Rocket’s older brother, orders of “no killing,” he proceeds to enter the building and slaughter its occupants after two-thirds of the gang has left. The scene perfectly sets the stage for Li’l Zé’s bloodthirsty quest to rule the streets of the slum.

As Li’l Zé grows older, his appetite for blood becomes insatiable. He manages to craft a faithful following by recruiting young gun-slingers to his cause and controlling the drug business, providing harder and better drugs for less than his competing gang.

Li’l Zé’s final war, in an effort to kill off his last rival, a drug lord named Carrot, cultivates his own demise. Leading up to the war, he and Carrot heavily recruit the slum’s prepubescent boys, handing each one a gun in what is essentially a suicide mission for a cause none of them understand and whose outcome none of them will see. Rocket watches what unfolds timidly from the lens of his camera, capturing photos his colleagues back at the Rio newspaper have sought for years.

In the end, police intervention cannot stop the City of God’s inherent culture of violence. Inevitably, ruthless “Runts” take over from Li’l Zé and begin a new era of what is sure to be identical to the old: robbing, killing, dealing and fighting; robbing, killing, dealing and fighting.

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