Liberation Aesthetics: Sinning and Surviving in Meirelles’ City of God

City of God

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God
crackles and depresses, exhilarates and horrifies. Lauded by critics
as a frenetic work of art five years ago, Cidade de Deus
marked Meirelles as a cinematic virtuoso. Based on the popular novel
by Paulo Lins, this film chronicles the lives of two boys, Rocket
and Li’l Zé, as they grow up in a favela and
move to a section of Rio de Janeiro, an area in which every kind
of human activity disturbs and appalls.

Spanning more than a decade, City Of God is narrated by the youthful Rocket (Alex Rodrigues), a budding photojournalist
who shows promise of moving beyond this heart of darkness when his
photographs of Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino), a gangster
with a dark, dark soul, are published in a Rio jornal in
the last third of the film. He snaps these photos amid the bloody
gang war between Li’l Zé and his charismatic rival,
Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).

In this world, a child’s criminal training begins at a more
experienced teenaged gangster’s knee. This apprenticeship
starts with stealing, looting, robbing and progresses to extortion,
murder and gang warfare. In one horrifying scene, a boy, roughly
10 or so, is told to kill one of two cornered youths (around four
and nine years old) of a rival gang. Goaded by Li’l Zé,
he executes the older boy in a rite of passage. This scene is preceded
by Li’l Zé’s own criminal uprising. As an adolescent,
he acts as a lookout for a brothel robbery (a scheme he devised
but is not allowed to participate), and, after he tricks his older
accomplices into fleeing, enters the hotel and murders the staff
and patrons.

These horrors are just two among many, for in this semi-collapsed
society, people are constricted by corruption and engulfed by criminality.
As one of its major themes, City of God painfully illustrates
poverty’s numerous privations: the few choices, the slim chances,
the narrow and vicious minds. With plenty of guns and little insight,
life among the ruins has never been sadder, never more visceral,
never more violent. Here, the origin of poverty lies not so much
in diminished resources but with poor social behavior. We follow
the lives of some Brazilian youths as they move from one troubled
exploit to the next. Though he is often in the thick of a dizzying
morass, Rocket manages to avoid too many serious problems. He does,
however, benefit from the criminality of his peers. He gets a camera
from one of his drug-dealing pals and, later, accepts another from
Li’l Zé, the camera he uses to take gang photos that
earn him an internship at a newspaper.

The film focuses on Rocket’s developing work ethic. His growth
from an adolescent to teenager is contrasted with the easy promises
and the dangerous pathos of Rio’s youth gangs. Meirelles
matches their energy with his vibrant cinematic techniques—the
split screens, fluid cameras and time-lapsed photography—capturing
the rush of life in its precarious and capricious moments. This
kinetic energy frames the story’s somewhat overlong but fast-paced
vignettes. Only occasionally does City of God break from
illustrating the fiery, intense work of crime to focus on life’s
smaller, quieter moments. But in this world even intimate moments
explode.

At the time, critic
Peter Rainer, then of New York magazine, complained

that Meirelles’ techniques glamorized violence. Rainer’s
point is debatable, for Meirelles’ hectic style is not meant
to merely excite audiences. The filmmaker's intention is to develop
an empathic understanding of these young criminals, because they
take pride and seek fame in hurting their enemies. They’re
thrilled when they murder. The film illustrates their frame of reference,
so we can comprehend how they live, make decisions and target their
victims. This empathic approach is meant to make us cringe at the
fast-paced world in which these kids live and die. Clearly, Meirelles
wants us to see things we are unable--or, more likely, unwilling--to
see. He understands that a movie-going audience is a varied group,
but he also knows that most people will avert their eyes from a
painfully depressing world in which nothing is certain because everything
is possible, including kids murdering kids. So Meirelles comes at
us with a powerful ferocity, assaulting our defenses to alter our
critical perspectives.

Consequently, City of God has an implicit argument--that
artists must possess a social conscience. For Meirelles, art must
intrude into and open up closed worlds; his is a kind of liberation
aesthetics
that sheds light on serious social matters. No doubt,
Meirelles' pedagogy is based on a strong impulse and conviction
that life can persevere even amid the most painful, shocking circumstances.
Because most of us cannot immerse ourselves in the favelas,
Meirelles wants us to study the film’s most painful features
and try to understand the characters’ experiences. For instance,
these youths yearn for power in a world in which upward mobility
comes from criminal behavior. Because parents are largely absent,
adults do not possess the answers as to how these kids will grow,
so peer groups substitute for parents, and these groups, for the
most part, govern themselves. Meirelles does explicitly investigate
how the desire for power affects these kids as part of his broader
social psychological quest to understand why young males are preoccupied
with violence.

His depiction, though, subverts traditional conventions. Ordinarily,
audiences approach fictive narratives by suspending their disbelief.
Meirelles, like many postmodern artists, disrupts this willful suspension
by drawing explicit attention to his techniques, so his audience
can understand how his artistic choices, such as cuts, dissolves,
and pans (much credit should go to the talented editor, Daniel Rezende,
as well) are as much a part of the narrative as the characters,
settings and conflicts. For Meirelles, this focus on style and technique
functions as another means of exploring his subject, and if we accept
the premise that an artist frames his subject by his directorial
choices, then we can accept that a filmmaker uses these choices
to make arguments about his subject.

city of god still
Director Fernando Meirelles asserts that life can
persevere even amid the most difficult circumstances.

Though all films play with temporality and spatiality, City
of God
alters chronology in order to illustrate the cycles
of violence. In this sense, Meirelles never lets us forget that,
amid the horrors and executions we are witnessing, we are watching
a movie. He draws attention to his techniques as a self-conscious
means of expressing his artistry. For this reason, City of God
strives for realism but also draws attention to its fictive elements
by rubbing our noses in the horrific shootings of children within
a context of non-linear storytelling and sped-up imagery. A compelling
story-within-a-story uses freeze frames and quick fades to illustrate
how an apartment changes hands among drug dealers. This recursive
style of narration adds more information and different points of
view to previous scenes, tying together the past with the present.

With Meirelles, there is a burning desire for expression, and this
burning doesn’t allow him to function merely as a detached
expositor. He commits to illustrating the relationship between form
and content, bringing to our awareness all of film’s constituent
parts. However, he is not interested in merely creating a film to
catalog his techniques (something Brian De Palma does far too often).
Rather, for Meirelles, liberation aesthetics must use every
technique and device necessary to penetrate those very worlds in
which art has little or no standing. In this sense, the very labor
of art is to illuminate life’s landscapes, labyrinths and
dead ends. Meirelles, Bráulio Mantovani and Lins place their
protagonist in an unwelcoming world alive with deadly horrors, and
through Rocket’s eyes, we understand the algorithms of the
city, the smells of the slums, and the problems posed by roving,
rootless masculine groups.

But for Meirelles, if art must have a social conscience, then art
must show a means of escape. This perspective helps explain why
Rocket yearns to become a photographer and why he runs to a broader
world that offers more choices. Though we sympathize with Rocket,
we never quite figure him out. He, like Li’l Zé, lacks
depth. Because of his youth, Rocket comments only on what he observes
even though City of God illustrates many things that he
cannot possibly see or fathom (such as the murder of his brother).
At times, his narration is minimalist, even bare, and, as a consequence,
Rocket seems to function as a tabula rasa, being inscribed
by the environment in which he lives. Not finished growing, not
offering too much insight, not a fully developed character, he is
our guide through a lethally ironic world in which the police arm
the very gangs they are charged to apprehend.

What this film does offer is some perspective into the socialized
power of peer groups, but what is thinly explained is why Rocket
yearns for something more than fitting into criminal enterprises.
What compels him to avoid (as much as he can) the perils of being
a hoodlum? At one point, he tells his brother that he disdains physical
labor (and being a criminal requires too much work), yet, later
on, he seeks his independence by working honest jobs and getting
by with a little luck. The film seems content to let the social
circumstances explain Li’l Zé’s pathology, but
Rocket’s behavior is the reason why he survives. Though we’re
never quite sure why he spurns criminality, we just know that he
carves a path away from the criminal kinship of his peers. Here,
society is corrupt, and the conditions of life are deeply disturbing.
Only a yearning for something better is presented as an alternative
to crime, and individual responsibility becomes the measure of all
conduct. At one point, Rocket rides the bus looking for victims
to rob with his brother’s broken pistol, but fortunate circumstances
and personal decisions keep him and his friend from going through
with their half-hearted plans.

Despite this scene and others that suggest hope for Rocket, there
is an overwhelming fatalism for what seem to be incurable social
ills. Though Rocket does resist the violence, he is stalked by this
nihilism. He holds his moral ground because he is on the run.

Although it never comes to terms with how to deal with youth crime,
Meirelles' film argues that art must proceed de realibus ad
realiora
in its heightened pursuit of the truth. Meirelles
also argues that artists must also come to terms with their own
creative choices in order to comprehend, command and shape the subject
they study, especially if the subject is the power of art itself.

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