[Marxism] City of God

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 23 08:48:21 MDT 2004

I finally got around to seeing the Brazilian film "City of God," which 
was directed by TV commercial veteran Fernando Meirelles and that 
enjoyed a very long run in NYC theaters a year or so ago. As most people 
know, this film has been widely acclaimed by the critical establishment 
and was an Oscar nominee last year. I was prepared to see something akin 
to Hector Babenco's "Pixote" or Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados", but was 
disappointed to discover that the film had more in common with Quentin 
Tarentino. It is a highly aestheticized presentation of gang life in a 
Rio de Janiero favela (slum) named "City of God" that left me with a 
feeling of total revulsion for all the characters except Rocket, a 
denizen who escapes this world by dint of his passion for photography 
and his ineptitude at crime. It is through his eyes that a never-ending 
procession of sadism and inhumanity unfolds.

The main character is L'il Ze, a psychopathic gang leader who reminds me 
of the character Al Pacino played in "Scarface". Comparable in terms of 
his crude ambitions and talent for wiping out opponents, L'il Ze lacks 
Tony Montaña's raffish charm. While this characterization might be more 
realistic, it also makes for less interesting drama since a compelling 
villain remains the lynchpin for a successful work of art.

L'il Ze's chief lieutenant is Benny, who seeks to escape gang life and 
live a hippy existence on a farm (the film is set in the 60s and 70s.) 
Although he is intended to be a relatively more attractive character, I 
would be repelled by anybody in the position of henchman to L'il Ze. In 
one scene, Benny joins L'il Ze in punishing one of the "runts," a 
preteen youngster similar to Pixote who has been terrorizing shopkeepers 
under the gang's protection. They offer him the choice of a bullet in 
the hand or the foot. After they shoot him in the foot, he is ordered to 
walk--but not limp--away from them. They giggle hysterically as if they 
had given somebody a hot-foot.

There is zero interest in explaining the broader social and economic 
context for the gangster phenomenon. Although it is obvious that crime 
is a function of poverty, Meirelles shows scant interest in the military 
dictatorship which had crushed all hopes for economic improvement. Nor 
does he seem interested in showing how a slum like City of God might 
have emerged as a function of what Marxists call "primitive 
accumulation." When peasants are driven off their land and forced into 
rural slums lacking all amenities and economic opportunity, no wonder 
their sons and daughters turn to drugs and crime.

In an interview with the online magazine Trópico, the director explained 
why he chose not to provide such a background:

Q: What were the major changes you made in adapting the book? [a 
reference to the nonfiction book the film was based on]

A: In the film, it's Buscapé ('Rocket' in the American subtitles) who 
tells the story, a kid who narrates how the outlaws came to be in the 
City of God, how they got starting dealing and wound up taking over the 
place. I was criticized for not showing the reason for all the violence, 
or the external factors affecting this story. But the fact is that the 
premise of my film is the viewpoint of the kid who narrates it.

If I wanted to present a sociological vision or explain the external 
factors of all that, this wouldn't be the same film. Not to mention the 
fact that it would make the film a dime a dozen. Everybody knows what 
the middle-class perspective on the subject is. Do we need a film to 
tell us that income distribution in Brazil is a disgrace?


I don't know. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I'd walk a mile for a 
sociological vision in a story such as this.


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