City of God, 20 years on

The Brazilian crime epic is more relevant today than ever before.

Soldiers on patrol watch a man pedal past on his tricycle at the City of God slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, June 7, 2018. More than five thousand soldiers and policemen took part in a surpr
Soldiers on patrol watch a man pedal past on his tricycle at the City of God favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, June 7, 2018 [AP Photo/Leo Correa]

It has been 20 years since the Brazilian crime epic, City of God, hit theatres for the first time and put Brazilian favelas and their unique structures of power, race and class under the global spotlight.

Set in Rio’s infamous Cidade de Deus (City of God) suburb between the end of 1960s and the beginning of 1980s, the film tells the stories of several interconnected characters struggling to escape violence and poverty from the point of view of a dark-skinned favela dweller nicknamed  “Rocket”.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the film received widespread critical acclaim as soon as it was released and secured four Oscar nominations in 2003. In the years that followed, it came to be seen by many as the definitive motion picture of modern Brazil and one of the greatest films of the 21st century.

City of God won hearts and minds in Brazil and abroad alike for many different reasons. First of all, the story, adapted from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Afro-Brazilian author Paulo Lins, allowed for a realistic depiction of favela life. It presented those living in the City of God neither as blameless “victims of society” nor as senseless thugs who chose violence, but as real people trying to navigate their difficult circumstances as best as they can. It allowed moviegoers to glimpse at the narrow alleyways and poorly constructed homes of the City of God, and the extreme violence and poverty that defines them, through the eyes of people actually living there. While the movie looks much like a Hollywood blockbuster and is highly stylised, it still feels authentic, perhaps due to most of its cast being comprised of modern-day residents of the favela depicted in the movie.

In the 20 years since its release, City of God not only aged well but remained very current – the issues it depicts are still as salient as ever before.

Indeed, poverty and extreme inequality are still chief problems in Rio de Janeiro. In favelas like City of God, the many struggles caused by poverty are exacerbated by police brutality and corruption, addiction, racism and – as it was very subtly depicted in the film -the condescending attitudes of the liberal white middle class towards the poor.

The film depicts a favela in the grip of organised crime in the 1970s and underlines the role corrupt police officers played in transforming this suburban neighbourhood (purpose-built to try and keep the poor outside the centre) into a place where laws do not apply, justice is never achieved and no one can ever truly feel safe. Today, regrettably, the state of Brazil’s favelas is perhaps much worse.

Paramilitary groups composed of former policemen and firefighters are seizing control of these neighbourhoods. In some cases these militias are working together with drug gangs, in others, they are viciously fighting them. Just like was the case in the movie, all this is happening in the deliberate absence of state control.

The personal hardships encountered in the film by Rocket and other characters such as Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) when they attempt to make an honest living also underscore the realities of favela life today. In the movie City of God, these characters are condemned to the peripheries of Brazilian society due to their social class and favela addresses. Moreover, they are held back by structural racism. Today, the same obstacles and prejudices are keeping countless favela youths from being able to break the cycle of poverty and lawlessness and build a different life for themselves.

Consequences of this debilitating lack of opportunity can also be observed in the lives of City of God actors who hail from backgrounds similar to that of the characters they brought to life.

I recently got the opportunity to interview Alexandre Rodrigues, the actor who played Rocket, for a magazine profile. During our conversation, he recalled how shocked he was by the luxuries he encountered during the trips he took outside of Rio in the early 2000s to promote the film. He talked of the cold awakening he and other cast members experienced when they returned to Rio after these trips and truly realised the extent of poverty they have been surrounded by in their home city – one of the most unequal in the world. Sadly, their backgrounds which made them perfect for their role in City of God also held them back in their careers. Rodrigues, for example, managed to build himself a respectable acting career over the years but never reached superstardom the way an actor who played the leading role in “one of the best movies of the 21st century” would be expected to. In fact, in 2016, it was revealed that Rodrigues was driving an Uber to make ends meet, which triggered a conversation on the apparent lack of opportunities for economic mobility in Brazil for those born into poverty, even after they achieve remarkable success in their chosen field of work.

Of course, despite its overwhelming success and undeniable impact, City of God is not above criticism. In fact, it was harshly criticised by many – including real-life residents of the City of God favela – as soon as it was released. One of the movie’s harshest critics was rapper MV Bill. A City of God resident himself, Bill strongly argued that the film reinforced prejudices about favelas for dramatic effect. He claimed that favela residents were presented in the movie as the “animalistic other” -a typical depiction of those who are dark-skinned and live in developing contexts.  Meanwhile, several others (mostly upper-class scholars, some of whom clearly view the poor merely as a subject of study rather than real people) accused the movie of “glamourising” poverty and violence through its “highly stylised” depiction of favela life. However, watching this movie never made me (and I suspect anyone else) want to move into a favela and live the difficult life experienced by the likes of Rocket. It was masterfully shot and edited in a way that pleases the eye, but it in no way serves as a tourism advertisement for the favela.

That City of God is a movie as relevant today as it was 20 years ago speaks to its timelessness as a work of art. But beyond that, it demonstrates how in the years since this masterpiece put Brazil’s favelas under a global spotlight nothing has been done to prevent the tragedy depicted in the movie from repeating itself. Indeed, countless innocent children are still growing up amid abject poverty, uncontrolled violence and a deep sense of injustice in favelas across Brazil today.

On the 20th anniversary of its release, City of God might be Brazil’s magnum opus, not only because it is one of the best, most impactful movies the country ever produced, but also because it lays bare an ugly truth about our nation we rather not have mentioned in our middle-class homes, let alone in the international arena.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.