BRAZIL: City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002)

by Olivia Schwalm

The reception of City of God was initially massively popular among audiences in Brazil, breaking box office records and achieving major worldwide distribution. The cinematic techniques of the film delivered a story about struggle and poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in a way that reflected the bright and shiny imagery of “television, advertising, and music videos”; the film was made to make the tragedies contained in it eye-catching and attractive (McClennen 95). This flashy depiction of some rather grave and serious topics drew negative attention from critics; one in particular, Ivana Bentes, compared the work to earlier films by Glauber Rocha that emphasized the “aesthetics of hunger”, but identifying City of God as an imposition on this idea and a reflection of the “cosmetics of hunger” instead. This warranted a response from Meirelles, the director of the film, who spoke of the tragedy of the mind’s inability to “conceive of entertainment, emotion, and reflection in the same package.” He also spoke of the function of the two ideas: “They always think in an exclusive or antagonistic way: it’s either art or entertainment.” (qtd. In Johnson 2005, 13-14). This response brought more clarity to the way the film was viewed, adding perspective on what was truly meant by the slick and glossy cinematic techniques utilized in the film. Consequently, with the massive critical audience response of the film, it was clear that these techniques and the film itself had been successful in engaging with the Brazilian public and initiating conversation about the topics presented during the film.

Even with its success in sparking discourse and ultimately affecting positive change as a result of this discourse, the question of whether this display constituted an example of exploitation and “fetishizing of poverty”, and whether there is even a way to avoid this when attempting to present films in this manner arose as well (McClennen 96). City of God is made as a late reflection of the Brazilian cinema nôvo, borrowing its classic tendencies towards the confrontation of dominant power structures dating back to colonial and neocolonial revolution. At the same time, City of God exists in spite of the initial anti-Hollywood tendencies of the cinema nôvo movement, borrowing flashy and romantic cinematic techniques in its depiction of the city’s violence. While every part of this film is cinematically striking, different scenes take different tones with the viewer in an attempt to bring upon them a realization of the true gravity of these events in the story. City of God begins with a story taking place in the early stages of the favela, depicting a visual rhythm of familiarity and casual crime. The repercussions of the violence in this part of the film remain somewhat minor until we reach the end of the story, with the dispersals and deaths of the three central characters. We are then transported to another surreal urban landscape where the rest of the film will take place and continue to delve into splits between scenes of carefree crime and those with more grave and heart wrenching connotations.

How is this split clearly visible in the film? Which pieces jut out and draw attention, bringing the greatest revelations and realizations to the audience? The rhythm of these scenes is not uniform, but it takes the form of a greater overarching structure that asserts itself unexpectedly throughout the film. This video essay aligns the pieces that establish this meaning from the simultaneously graceful and chaotic violence of the City of God.

Citations

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