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City of God: Youth Gangs & Violence

Updated on February 1, 2019
Crystal Gordon profile image

Eloquent. Aesthetic. Starter. Magnetic. Spiritual. Strong. Determined. Ambitious. Freethinking. Leader. Confident. Adventurous. Managerial.


City of God is a vividly violent portrayal of life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as seen through the eyes of one of its inhabitants, Rocket.

This crime, drama film was released in 2002.

It is based on a true life story in which the characters are driven to be part of a is their way of life.

They inevitably have to be in a gang and carry out grotesquely brutal crimes in order to escape poverty.

Film Poster

City of God (2002) - "Cidade de Deus" (original title)
City of God (2002) - "Cidade de Deus" (original title) | Source

Film Style

The actors used in the film were mainly amateurs recruited from the slums in Rio de Janeiro.

A couple of the actors, including the main character Rocket (played by Alexandre Rodrigues), actually lived in the Cidade de Deus (translation: City of God).

The film was set in the slums and it was filmed there too; not in the "City of God" itself, but in a nearby safer area, which heightens the feeling of realism throughout the entire film.

From the opening scene, the cinematography is used to excellent effect.

The style of the film is set and the viewer is immediately given a glimpse into what it is like to live in the slums.

The camera continuously cuts from scene to scene (e.g., flashes of a knife being sharpened, a chicken being caught, killed, cleaned and cooked, carrots being peeled, etc.) and this is accompanied by loud music being played, which continues until the chicken escapes and picks up again as a chase begins.

The camera follows the children chasing the chicken with frequent cuts to other cameras providing aerial views, close ups, long shots, tracking and panoramic views of the action.

This sequence ends with Rocket caught between Lil Ze’s gang and the police, a theme that is continued throughout the movie.

Film Trailer

Favela Depiction

The favela in City of God is so well rendered it becomes a character – cruel, alluring, inescapable. But most of all, it is intensely real
The favela in City of God is so well rendered it becomes a character – cruel, alluring, inescapable. But most of all, it is intensely real | Source

Director's Visual Style

The director makes full use of the character's surroundings, for example placing the camera behind inanimate objects such as metal fencing, the fender of a car bonnet, wooden fences, windows, concrete squares, etc., to provide multiple view points to help draw the viewer into the film.

He also uses clever editing techniques, such as a 360º rotational view around Rocket, to move the story from the present to the past.

Throughout the film there are many different scenes and sub-scenes.

Although the main focus of the film is on the slum and Rocket's experience of growing up there, it also tells smaller stories about certain people and places that have influenced his life.

The director has titled each of these scenes separately by having a ‘flash shot’, a still, of a specific place or person with the title of that story appearing on screen.

Throughout the majority of the film, the camera seems to be in motion and rarely when it is used statically, it is done to emphasize a scene, with stills also being used to introduce specific influential characters.

As the film is from Rocket's perspective, these shots are frequently provided either by him looking through the viewfinder of an actual camera or they are mental flashes from his memory.

Original Motion Picture Sountrack

Film Soundtrack

The film uses both digetic and non-digetic sounds throughout.

You continuously hear the noises of daily living including gunfire and distant sound.

Music and Rocket’s narration have also been added to great effect.

The music used is from the relevant era and is used more so to recreate the period in which the film is set.

The music is particularly noticeable and poignant at many points to illuminate certain meetings between characters, for example, when Shaggy is struck by Bernice’s beauty in the candlelight, the music begins and cuts out only when his attention is regained by her mother.

As well as the director making full use of the natural lighting of the surroundings, there are two set pieces within the film where the lighting is key.

The first is when disco strobe lighting is used at Benny’s murder, where even though the action is inevitable, the scene has an added element of chaos as it is hard for the viewer to follow exactly what is happening amid the flashing scenes of people dancing.

The second is when Lil Ze goes to the voodoo priest, the flickering candlelight amiss numerous cuts help emphasize the darker side of slum life.

Gang Initiation

Film Violence

The film is a sad portrayal of life in the slums, made even more so as it is based on Rocket's true story.

It is very violent, which inevitably draws some criticism.

Although it seems gratuitous, the violence is necessary because to tell Rocket’s story otherwise, would not provide a true picture of life in the 'City of God'.

It is often shocking and frequently sad, merely because of the ages of the characters.

The main protagonists, Rocket and Lil Ze, cannot be older than their mid-twenties, and many of the gang members were young children.

It is easy to forget the ages of the children whilst watching the film, yet the director provides a reminder in a harrowing scene where two members of a child gang are caught and held at gunpoint.

This scene, representative of many other child deaths in the film, is the most striking because this child’s reaction is unlike any other seen throughout the film.

Faced with his impending murder, he breaks down into tears and it serves to bring home the realization that he is just a small boy who in a less poverty stricken environment would be home with his parents.

This scene is used by the director to show the brutality and desperation of those living in the favelas; an environment incomprehensible to many film viewers.

In the 'City of God', boys are acting as men, they are forced to see and do horrific things far beyond their maturity levels, which is summarized in a statement made by one of the younger gang members who when called a "kid" replies: ‘a kid? I smoke, I snort, I’ve killed and robbed, I’m a man!’

Sandro Cenoura: Have you lost your mind? You are just a kid!

Filé-com-Fritas - Steak and Fries: A kid? I smoke, I snort. I've killed and robbed. I'm a man.

— City of God (2002)

The Art Of Storytelling In Film

This true story is a brutal and unflinching recollection of a time and place when disco ignited dance floors and teenagers ruled the slums of Rio de Janiero with tempers flared and guns blazing.

Directors, Katia Lund and Fernando Mierelles, deliver a blood-curdling horror story in human terms; a study of a mad, fear-driven community in which manhood can only be determined through violence.

Nothing hurts like the truth, and this film feels disturbingly true.

It is so unsparing and harrowing in its depictions of murder and chaos that it may knot the stomach of even the most impervious audience member.

This is a sober eulogy for the lost and stolen childhoods of the protagonists in the film.

It is also a heated condemnation of the society that would allow their situation to reach epidemic proportions; this film is unforgettable.


Main Character Played By Alexandre Rodrigues
Main Character Played By Alexandre Rodrigues | Source

Youth gangs took over the slums of Rio de Janiero during the 1960s and didn't relinquish their stronghold until the mid-1980s.

Only a "sucker" wouldn't have turned to crime and this is exactly how naive teen Rocket views himself.

His attempts in illegal activity fail as he finds potential victims too friendly.

Equally unsuccessful in love, he regularly fails to lose his virginity.

Blood spills throughout the streets of the 'City of God' as gang leader Li'l Ze (played by Leandro Firmino da Hora) is challenged by local druglords and a gang of pre-teens known as the Runts (e.g., Caixa Baixa gang).

Rocket shoots all of this action with his weapon of choice, a camera.

Director Fernando Meirelles combines visual flashiness with dark history in telling the story of three decades of unrest in underground Rio de Janiero.

Technically flawless, the Brazilian film uses a rapid-cutting style to flash back and forth in time.

Cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, shoots with an overexposed glow in a film that may seem numb to violence, but reveres photography.

And, Meirelles was assisted by Katia Lund, a filmmaker who had previously shot in the Rio ghettos.


'City of God' is based on a true story, written down by Paulo Lins in his book “Cidade de Deus”.

It shows poverty, violence, gang warfare and drug business in an unconvertible rush.

The movie continues a tradition of mafia stories; comparisons to Scorsese’s Goodfellas are inevitable, joining a hood through three decades of rise and fall.

But, it also reminds the watcher of drug movies in the style of the 70s, like Blow; the colours in 'City of God' are a striking and essential instrument to create the right mood.

20 Things You Didn't Know About 'City of God'

How well do you know the high voltage Brazilian gangster flick?
How well do you know the high voltage Brazilian gangster flick? | Source

Film Talent

All of the actors are 'non-professionals'.

Director Fernando Meirelles wanted unknown faces to make the watcher look through the eyes of the Brazilian kids – a strategy that works.

The actors indeed spring from Rio ’s favelas and were educated in their own acting workshops, which later helped them receive numerous awards for their work on this film.

Film Awards

AFI Fest
Best International Feature Film
National Board of Review, USA
Top Foreign Films
Havana Film Festival
Best Cinematography
Best Editing
Awards Circuit Community Awards
Best Foreign Language Film
African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA)
Top 10 Films
Black Reel
Special Achievement - Foreign Film
Chicago Film Critics Association
Best Foreign Language Film
Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Best Foreign Film
Vancouver Film Critics Circle
Best Foreign Language Film

Quick Question

Have You Seen The 'City Of God'?

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Fernando Meirelles achieved more than an epic drama of violence and social tragedy with this film, 'City of God'.

Through unique pictures, surprising cuts and a great soundtrack of Brazilian music, he creates an unexpected atmosphere where even in a story like this humour has its space.

Meirelles tells a story of poverty and generations without perspectives and of two different approaches: either cope with crime to be on top for a short time, or try to escape.

Meirelles does not ask moral questions in this film, he simply shows what real life is like in a slum.

The movie is recommendable because of the realistic approach to storytelling.

Consider 'City of God' a testament to the living cinema of Brazil.

Where Are They Now?

'City of God –- 10 Years Later' Co-Director on Where the Stars of the Brazilian Hit Are Today (Q&A)
'City of God –- 10 Years Later' Co-Director on Where the Stars of the Brazilian Hit Are Today (Q&A) | Source

© 2016 Crystal Gordon


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