In the ‘City of God’ — Honesty Doesn’t Pay, Sucker!

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¶ It’s the ‘City of God’

You can’t Run… You can’t Stay… You can’t Hide…

You can only Die…

If you run, the beast will get you. If you stay, the beast will eat you ¶

If Amores perros is the Mexican Pulp Fiction, then City of God is the Brazilian GoodFellas, or so what the publicity people says. The comparison isn’t unapt, for Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant second feature has the epic sweep of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Ranging over three decades of gang warfare in the ironically named real-life favela or slum city outside Rio de Janeiro, it boasts a huge cast of nonprofessional actors (trained at a performance school on site) and whittles down the hundreds of characters in its source novel by Paulo Lins to a still-bewildering juvenile horde.

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¶ Fight and you’ll never Survive… Run and you’ll never Escape…¶

You Need More than just Guts to be a good Gangster…

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For many, this Brazilian film is one of the best of the 2000’s. Rich with character, it is a crime story about the seedy underbelly of Brazil that as critic Roger Ebert claims deserves a lot of comparisons to Goodfellas. It is so kinetic with humor, action and compelling performances that it is easy to see why this one would stand out. In fact, it ranks #22 on IMDb’s Top 250 as rated by its users. The acclaim for the film is endless.

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The movie “City of God” that was directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund and released in 2002 is a story about two kids, Rocket and Lil Ze, growing up in the City of God favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Lil Ze, a child who wanted to prove himself, became a merciless drug lord, who killed, raped, robbed, and threatened in order to gain power. The other kid, Rocket, witnessed the violence going on in the neighborhood around him and became a photographer.


Cast & Characters

Many characters are known only by nicknames. The literal translation of these nicknames is given next to their original Portuguese name; the names given in English subtitles are sometimes different.

*(Links will take you to Wikipedia)

Name Actor(s) Name in English subtitles Description
Buscapé (“Firecracker”) Alexandre Rodrigues (adult)
Luis Otávio (child)
Rocket The main narrator. A quiet, honest boy who dreams of becoming a photographer, and the only character who seems to keep from being dragged down into corruption and murder during the gang wars. His real name is Wilson Rodrigues
Zé Pequeno (“Little Joe” “Lil Zé”)
childhood: Dadinho (“Little Eddy” “Lil Dice”)
Leandro Firmino da Hora (adult)
Douglas Silva (child)
Li’l Zé
Li’l Dice
A sociopathic drug dealer who takes sadistic pleasure in killing his rivals. When his only friend, Benny, is struck by fate, it drives him over the edge. “Dado” is a common nickname for Eduardo, and “inho” a diminutive suffix; “dado” also means “dice”. When he turned into an adult, he changed his name to Zé Pequeno in ceremony of Candomblé, a religion of African origin, since it was chosen for him at that moment it may also be unrelated to his actual name. is a nickname for José, while pequeno means “little”.
Bené (“Benny”) Phellipe Haagensen (adult)
Michel de Souza (child)
Benny Zé’s longtime partner in crime, he is a friendly City of God drug dealer who fancies himself a sort of Robin Hood, and wants to eventually lead an honest life.
Sandro, nicknamed Cenoura (“Carrot”) Matheus Nachtergaele Carrot A smaller-scale drug dealer who is friendly with Benny but is constantly threatened by Zé.
Mané Galinha (“Chicken Manny”) Seu Jorge Knockout Ned A handsome, charismatic ladies’ man. Zé rapes his girlfriend and then proceeds to massacre several members of Ned’s family. Ned joins forces with Carrot to retaliate against Zé. His name was changed for the English subtitles because in English, “chicken” is a term for a coward (in Brazil it denotes popularity among women). “Mané” is a nickname for Manuel.
Cabeleira (“Long Hair”) Jonathan Haagensen Shaggy Older brother of Bené (“Benny”) and the leader of the Tender Trio (“Trio Ternura”), a group of thieves who share their profit with the population of the City of God.
Marreco (“Garganey”) Renato de Souza Goose One of the Tender Trio, and Rocket’s brother.
Alicate (“Pliers”) Jefechander Suplino Clipper One of the Tender Trio. Later gives up crime and joins the church.
Barbantinho (“Little twine”) Edson Oliveira (adult)
Emerson Gomes (child)
Stringy Childhood friend of Rocket.
Angélica Alice Braga Angélica An old friend and love interest of Rocket, and later Benny’s girlfriend, who motivates him to abandon the criminal life.
Tiago Daniel Zettel Tiago Angélica’s redheaded boyfriend, who later becomes Li’l Zé’s associate and a drug addict.
Filé com Fritas (“Steak with Fries”) Darlan Cunha Steak with Fries A young drug addict hired by Zé’s gang.
Charles, nicknamed Tio Sam (“Uncle Sam“) Charles Paraventi Charles / Uncle Sam A weapons dealer.
Marina Cintra Graziella Moretto Marina Cintra A journalist for Jornal do Brasil, who hires Rocket as a photographer. Rocket has his first sexual experience with her.
Touro (“Bull”) Luiz Carlos Ribeiro Seixas Touro An honest police officer.
Cabeção (“Big Head”) Maurício Marques Melonhead A corrupt police officer.
Lampião (“Lantern”) Thiago Martins Lampião Child leader of the Runts gang
Marcos Junqueira Otávio Marcos Junqueira Child leader of the Runts gang

The Film

City of God (2002) / Cidade de Deus (Original)

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“CIDADE de DEUS” – “City of God” – Original Posters
Directed by
  • Fernando Meirelles
  • Kátia Lund (co-director)
Produced by
  • Andrea Barata Ribeiro
  • Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani
Based on City of God
by Paulo Lins
Starring
  • Alexandre Rodrigues
  • Leandro Firmino da Hora
  • Phellipe Haagensen
  • Douglas Silva
  • Jonathan Haagensen
  • Matheus Nachtergaele
  • Seu Jorge
Music by
  • Antonio Pinto
  • Ed Côrtes
Cinematography César Charlone
Edited by Daniel Rezende
Production
company
  • O2 Filmes
  • VideoFilmes
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date
  • 18 May 2002 (Cannes)
  • 30 August 2002 (Brazil)
Running time
130 minutes
135 minutes (TIFF)
Country Brazil
Language Portuguese
Budget $3.3 million
Box office $30.6 million

“City of God”/”Cidade de Deus”

This film demonstrated two paths people growing up in this environment could take and showed the results of their choices. These choices were affected by how good of a role model they had. Lil Ze never really had a positive role model, but Rocket had his brother to guide him. Lil Ze who lived a more dangerous and violent life died at an early age, while Rocket lived on and his photographs became famous.

The City of God film accurately depicts the brutality and desperation of life in the Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The City of God favela is one that began as a living community for poorer people in the early 1960’s and within 10 years decayed into a violent, filthy neighborhood controlled by drug lords. (Arias and Rodrigues, 2006) A favela is another name for a shanty town found in urban areas in Brazil.

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The favelas in Brazil are crowded and violent; in the film you really see how the people in these neighborhoods live. The clothes that people wear are ragged and old; some kids are seen running around without shoes on through the streets, pushing aside people and animals. The houses seem to have layers of dirt on them and dust from the constant commotion pervades the air. The film authentically portrays the squalor people actually live in. In one scene you see a boy riding his bike and in the background there are burnt cars (presumably from the drug war) and trash piled around him.

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The first favela was created to house the 20,000 veterans and their families from the Canudos campaign. The favelas began expanding rapidly in the 1920’s and 30’s.About six percent of Brazilians live in a favela. (Center for Latin American studies, Miami) Favelas are often ruled by the different drug lords who control them. There are regular shootings in these favelas between gangs and the police. Residents of these favelas believe they can guarantee their own safety by following the drug traffickers; however this is only because the drug traffickers create a myth of personal safety. (Arias and Rodrigues, 2006) The neighborhood relies on the drug traffickers to keep them safe, which also contributes to the residents not talking to the police officers when there is a crime.

“Traffickers are less likely to punish respected and politically connected residents than those who are marginal to the political life of the favela community.” –Arias and Rodrigues. These things are shown in the movie to an extent, but the movie is more focused on the main characters.

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As shown in the film, the gangs control what people can do and where they can go. The scene in which a group of poorer neighborhood children nicknamed “The Runts” were punished for stealing from stores in the favela, demonstrated the power of the gangs. In this scene the runts are discussing how they can make money in the drug trade, when Lil Ze and his gang show up. Most of the kids scatter, but Lil Ze manages to catch two members. He asks the terrified children where they want to be shot, in their hand or their foot. He shoots the right foot of both children and orders one of his younger gang members to kill one of the runts. The younger gang member is shown in this scene as scared and disgusted, yet he still shoots the young child. This scene occurred at the point where Lil Ze was at his most powerful, towards the middle of the film. This scene shows how the drug lords maintain order through fear, so they can stay in power. It also shows that children being manipulated by gangs, are often turned into killers or get killed because they want to fit in and become criminals.

 

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Crime in these favelas is the direct result of widespread poverty and economic inequality (Perlman, 2006). Joining a gang might seem attractive to younger children because it is relatively easy money. Brazil has one of the highest rates of economic inequality and this may lead to the have-nots wanting to gain more power (Perlman, 2006). Because of the poverty in these neighborhoods there are many social and family problems, this leads kids and teenagers to look towards other role models, such as the gang members (Arias and Rodrigues, 2006). The absence of powerful role model can drive the young boys to the gangs in order for them to feel respected or fit in. Sometimes the boys think this is their only option in order to improve their lives.

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The City of God film does a very good job of displaying a realistic picture of poverty in these areas. You don’t see extreme cases of starving, innocent children. What you do see in this film is how children become attracted to these gangs and how they even consider being a “hood” as a possible future job.

One of Rocket’s friends asked him when they were younger, what he wanted to be when he grew up. Rocket said he didn’t want to be a police officer or a hood. In the film you see the transition from troublesome kids into criminals that deal primarily in violence, as in the case with the runts.

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This film is mainly focused on the criminal aspect of the favelas and not so much the home lives of the children involved or the lives of average residents not involved in the gangs. This is to be expected from a film that is just a little over two hours. However, one powerful scene which showed the home life of a character was when ‘Knockout’ Ned had his house shot at and two members of his family killed. He was sitting at the dinner table talking to his family, when Lil Ze appeared in front of his house. It really showed how supportive Ned’s family was towards him; he had powerful role model which helped keep him out of trouble while growing up.

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He later became a vicious gang member after Lil Ze’s attack. This happened because Lil Ze came to kill him and Ned’s brother came out to calm everyone down. Ned’s brother attacked Lil Ze with a knife, which led to Lil Ze’s members shooting him and Ned’s house. They ended up killing Ned’s brother and uncle. Because of the corruption in the police force and the fear of getting involved, nobody came to stop this and nobody was charged. The police who also have to feed their families take bribes from gangs, which helps them escape poverty but leaves the rest of the favela to suffer. The police often aid the drug traffickers in order to gain more money; this helps the traffickers more so than the police officers. (Center for Latin American politics, Miami) This particular scene showed that even people who start out hopeful and friendly can change when pushed far enough by the violence surrounding them. It seems inevitable that someone pushed far enough by violence surrounding them will choose violence to accomplish their goals if it is all they know.

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Money equates to power in this film. We see this many times in the movie, in one scene Ned joins Carrot’s gang to get revenge on Lil Ze and begins holding up stores in order to buy guns to wage war. Carrot is a local drug lord who is at war with Lil Ze’s gang. At first ‘Knock-out’ Ned takes a very passive role in the robberies and says there should be no killing when robbing stores, however after Carrot shoots someone aiming a gun at Ned, Carrot claims there is an exception for self-defense. After a while Ned begins killing during their robberies and as claimed in the film, the exception becomes the rule. These crimes are not done because Ned is starving; they are done because Ned feels he needs power in order to kill Lil Ze. Ned wants to kill him because Lil Ze raped his girlfriend and murdered two members of his family. This shows how the need for revenge affected Ned’s life and caused him to become a criminal he had despised at first.

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This film shows that even the most righteous people, like Ned can become corrupted by the violence and money in these favelas. This also reflects on how little power the police hold in these neighborhoods. In order for towns and neighborhoods to prosper you need a strong, capable police force to maintain order, something the favelas are lacking. The scene where the runts are discussing what they can do to make the most money and move up in the drug business, right before Lil Ze and his gang comes to kill one of them for robbing stores in the favela, shows how desperate people are to escape their living conditions. This desperation is present because of the corruption of law enforcement and policy makers and limited government funds which prevents the slums from being helped.

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However, this is not to say that there are no absolute poor in these favelas. In fact Rio de Janeiro is the number one city with the highest number of absolute poor. It is no wonder why people commit crimes in order to sustain themselves. The poor want to move up and create a better life for themselves and their families. As stated in the previous paragraph, money is power. To obtain this money through legal ways is hard when you have little education and there are not enough jobs available. To obtain it through illegal means, is much easier, but much more dangerous.

One quote from the main character, Rocket, which describes how bad the neighborhood got after a drug war, broke out between Carrot’s gang and Lil Ze’s gang. Rocket says “people got used to living in Vietnam”. This quote meant that the residents were living in a war zone where they became accustomed to seeing dead bodies lying around and hearing gun fights. The myth of personal safety allows these residents to turn their backs and not get involved because they believe the drug lords will keep order. Even though there are all of these crimes being committed around them.

The City of God favela is shown in the 1960’s in the film, as cleaner and not so crowded. The inhabitants are still considered poor, but there living conditions seemed much better. People could also walk around the favelas without fear of their being a gun fight. There were no drugs aside from marijuana and the criminals tried to help their community. In one of the beginning scenes the tender trio, a group consisting of three criminals which included rocket’s brother Goose, rob a gasoline truck and call everyone to take some. The crimes committed were not as severe or frequent. In the 1970’s the favela is shown as much more violent, crowded, and filthy. This was when the drug lords started taking over and dictating what people could do and where they could move within the favela. As time progressed in the film, the favela kept getting more violent and crowded.

Rocket was a somewhat unique character in this film, because he took photos and observed all of the chaos and war around him, however he wasn’t directly involved in any of it. He found himself literally caught in the middle of all of the violence, when in the ending scene he is trying to catch a chicken and in front of him is Lil Ze’s gang and behind him is the police force. This has a lot to do with the influence of his brother, Goose. Goose told Rocket not to get involved in crime because unlike Goose, Rocket has a brain.

Lil Ze on the other hand, was not shown in the film as having a strong role model. He descended into violence at an early age. While he was supposed to be watching for cops, so the tender trio could rob a hotel, he gave the signal and the tender trio fled. The signal meant that cops were coming, however Lil Ze only gave the signal so he could go into the hotel and kill. He killed all of the residents of the hotel he could find, all the while laughing and having fun. This is how people began to fear him, and he kept this fear going in order to gain power.

Poverty is something which is hard to escape, especially in countries considered to be third world. With rampant corruption of police and lower level officials, and drug gangs that seem to have an endless amount of power, it is no wonder why kids are getting involved in these gangs. Power, money and opportunity are what awaits you if you join an organization involved in trafficking drugs at least that is what the gangs will say to convince kids to join. Without a strong police force and government these favelas will keep eroding. City of God was a film which portrayed poverty as realistically as possible; the reason why it was so realistic was that it was actually filmed on location in the City of God favela.

What if I were to tell you that the film didn’t even get nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in the eligible 2002 run? Better yet, it wasn’t even Brazil’s entry into that year’s race (which didn’t get picked anyways). It seemed like a failed campaign before things ever got off of the ground. True, the film’s legacy has kept it in the zeitgeist of most acclaimed foreign films in history, but why does it deserve to be mentioned here? Most films come and go that deserve more recognition, but City of God pulled an unthinkable hat trick. Well, Harvey Weinstein and the boys at Miramax did.

To summarize, the campaign didn’t actually take place in 2002 that would become a noteworthy mention. It actually came two years later when it managed to rack up a whopping four nominations, confusing everyone including Fernando Meirelles. If this seems confusing, wait until you hear the pretty simple way in which this gangster film managed to defy odds and became a towering giant in the race.


Road to the OSCARS…

Let’s start with a brief discussion regarding the eligibility of Best Foreign Films. The catch is that the films of any given country do not necessarily have to be nominated in their initial year of release. However, they have to be out in their original country prior to an American release. From there, the film must follow the typical guidelines of playing seven consecutive days in an American theater to be eligible. Since countries are only allowed to submit one film, this makes things particularly complicated, especially if there’s multiple acclaim features from countries. There have been examples defying these odds as recently as last year. Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or and became a cultural discussion piece. However, due to a strange scheduling, it opened in America prior to its home country and thus became disqualified. However, it could run in all of the other categories. As evident, that didn’t work out.

Cut back to City of God. How can a film that failed to get the Best Foreign Film nomination from its home country manage to land so many nominations two years later? It is baffling to everyone, but as evident by Weinstein’s history here, there’s always a very stupid loophole that can work. The film must play in American theaters for consecutive seven days in order to be eligible. Keep that in mind going forward. When the film failed to get nominated after opening in January of 2003, there was a trick up the sleeve so banal and obvious that it makes sense in hindsight.

”We made a conscious decision to keep this movie in theaters for 54 weeks.” at the time said Weinstein in lieu of the four Oscar nominations. This would mean that the film was in theaters between January 2003 and January 2004. If nothing else, it would be eligible in both years. It also benefited from a word of mouth structure around Hollywood that allegedly had names such as Quentin Tarantino, Russell Crowe and Matt Damon all stating their love for the film. The film was rereleased three times total in order to keep it out there. To summarize, it was eligible for three consecutive years of Oscars because of this strange tactic.


“City of God”

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City of God (2002)
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Rating: 5/5 Stars

The Payoff — For starters, Meirelles was shocked that he was even nominated. This resulted in four Oscar nominations including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Not bad, especially since the director was away working on his English debut The Constant Gardener. In fact, he didn’t think that he would win any of the awards for a very obvious reason. Still, it was a reason to be excited and the strategy finally paid off for Weinstein, proving that aggression over fair play was the best call.

To summarize, the film lost in all four categories. However, it was because of a more powerful, popular film that was out. Director Peter Jackson ended his trilogy with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It was an odds-defying film that came to define the modern blockbuster with enviable technical achievements and turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy into a cinematic masterpiece. It could be my own hyperbole, but it was a film that couldn’t be stopped because it was just so great. It may in fact be the last time that box office and Oscars really crossed paths in a major way. Ever since, studios and indie films have mingled pretty well together.

Still, the film won 11 Oscars total, all of which were in categories that City of God was nominated in. It was inevitable with many seeing Jackson’s win as being a highlight of his 12 hour magnum opus. In fairness, there shouldn’t be any bitterness towards City of God losing because even Meirelles didn’t think that he would make it. At best, he was just thankful to show up to the ceremony. Even then, the magic of Weinstein’s loophole nature has managed to make this one of the most curious cases in Oscar nomination history. I just wonder if it could happen again.


© 2017 Asif Ahsan Khan. ® All rights reserved.

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External links


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Author Bio:  Asif Ahsan Khan is a weird fellow. He eats, sleeps, drinks and lives the entertainment industry, with pretty useful insights into film, television, and fashion for starters. Despite growing up in the 21st century’s era of modernization, he prefers many retro era ideas over the current trends found in many of today’s media. Personally he’s an introvert who loves reading as much as sleeping… and dreaming.

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Asif Ahsan Khan
@asifahsankhan
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