If you run, the beast will get you. If you stay, the beast will eat you. So reads the tagline to City of God, an epic Brazilian crime drama based on the semi-autobiographical 1997 novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, detailing his life while growing up in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous favelas, Cidade de Deus, during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. The novel became a sensation within Brazil, but its 2002 film adaptation was a bona fide global hit, establishing its previously unknown directors and cast in the spotlights as the latest narrators of an epic crime story that might be placed in Brazil, but deals in truths no matter where the lines of poverty, violence and hopelessness intersect.
The story begins in the 1960s, during the early days of the City of God, a suburb designed by the Brazilian government as a dumping ground for Rio’s poor and displaced. With no electricity, running water or paved roads, it quickly becomes an impoverished hellhole where crime is seen as the only upwardly mobile career choice. We follow the exploits of a trio of amateur thieves—Shaggy, Clipper and Goose…as well as their psychotic hanger-on, Li’l Dice. Time goes on, and most of the trio die or run off, and Li’l Dice reinvents himself as the bloodthirsty Li’l Ze, intent on ruling the entire City of God as its criminal kingpin. Meanwhile, Goose’s younger brother, Rocket, is a good kid with ambitions of becoming a photographer. But it’s not easy forging a legitimate path for yourself when you are among the poorest of the poor and a life of crime beckons from every corner. No matter how far you venture outside of the favela, the favela always has a way of finding you, and Rocket learns firsthand that the hardest thing about leaving the City of God isn’t deciding to leave, but figuring out how to do it without first making a stop at the jail or the morgue.
Most crime stories are about the line that separates order and chaos, what drives people to cross that line, and what the stakes are for those who do. City of God is no different, but unlike a lot of crime stories, it spares no sentimentality for its broad cast of killers, thieves and hustlers. Life is hard in the City of God, and most who grow up there do so paying for a crime they did not commit: merely being born under the wrong circumstances. Surrounded by violence, the lure of easy money that crime affords, and the perpetual presence of a corrupt police force that is more like a bigger gang than anything else, one can hardly blame anyone in this tale from walking among the shadows rather than in the light. But there are consequences to every action, even in the City of God. Especially there, as a matter of fact.
That is the irony of the underworld in City of God. Nobody descends into a life of crime and comes out unscathed, because they don’t come out at all. Joining a gang might seem like a way out of grinding poverty, but it merely exchanges it for an eventual case of lead poisoning. City of God does not pretend otehrwise, or sugarcoat the inevitable results. It just shows it to us plainly, so we can see the real tragedy: those who know what a life by the gun means, and end up taking it anyway.
We see this best in the movie’s superb opening, as a big barbecue prepares to get underway. A nervous chicken watches his brethren get killed, boiled, plucked and carved, and he makes a run for it. The chase that ensues is a comedy of gangland errors as a bunch of pistol-packing hoods can’t seem to nail a single runaway chicken. Just when the bird thinks its safe, it nearly is run over by a passing cop car, showing that even the police are a cure worse than the disease. It all provides a metaphorical set-up that we return to during the movie’s climax that. Run or stay, you’re screwed either way. So why not take up a gun and go out in a blaze of glory?
The answer is Rocket, our protagonist, a kid who just wants to smoke a little weed, get with a girl, find a camera, and live a straight life taking pictures. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, which makes him not long for life on the mean streets of the City of God. And like the chicken, he finds himself on the edge of catastrophe for much of the movie until a weird twist of fate puts him, literally and figuratively, in the line of fire between Lli’l Ze’s murderous gang and the Rio police. Rocket stands over the chicken, frozen in place, wondering whether he’s going to get shot in the face or the back, and he poses a question with no easy answer: how the hell did I get here?
It’s a question everybody in the favela asks themselves daily, and one that inevitably makes room for some bad answers and even worse solutions. But Rocket never falls prey to it. His one flirtation with crime is a hilarious evening of failed stick-up attempts because he can’t bring himself to rob people he thinks are too nice to be bothered. We might argue that Rocket stays on the straight and narrow because he’s simply too innately good to go wrong. But there’s an example for that, too, that pushed far enough, anybody in the City of God can become part of its living hell. That Rocket doesn’t, despite his many chances to, shows that the City of God might be without law, but it’s not entirely without hope. There can still be good in this world. Not building Cities of God would be a good first step.