City of God — Examining Nature vs. Nurture

Image retrieved from TMDb

There are lots of movies on my List of Shame. If it was released before the 60s, there’s a solid chance I haven’t seen it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it! So you can come here to read about my first experience with movies I feel like I should have probably watched by now. And this isn’t limited to older classics. If it’s a movie I’m interested in, but just happened to miss, Playing Catch-Up is the series where you can find my thoughts on it!

Spoilers for City of God!

It’s probably way past time that I finally watched City of God. I’ve been hearing about the 2002 Brazilian film for years and it was the highest movie on the IMDb top 250 that I still hadn’t seen (it’s number 22). There was no particular reason that I still hadn’t seen it other than the fact that I knew it involved gangs and violence, the kind of movie I typically need to be in a specific mood to watch. 

Unsurprisingly, after the two hours and nine minutes of this movie’s runtime passed, I found myself wishing that I had gotten to it much sooner, because it is just about as special as everyone says. 

City of God chronicles the 1960s and 1970s in Cidade de Deus (City of God), a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, as organized crime among young people grows increasingly prevalent. The City of God is an incredibly poor area as Rocket, the film’s main character and narrator, points out at the very beginning. This area is too poor, beaten down, dirty, and lawless for the rich and powerful to even care about, so children spend their lives without an education, without hope, and with their only option being to enter into the business of organized crime to survive. People try to get jobs, but either they are unsustainable or they don’t pay enough to keep them away from a life of crime. But of course, ironically, crime being their option to survive often means that their lives will be cut very short at a young age at the whim of a criminal.

This movie is brutal, but it has a lot to say. Thematically, it feels like the before-its-time anti-Parasite. Whereas Parasite shows the inherent bias against the have-nots and how it’s virtually impossible to work your way up out of a system that’s designed to keep you down, City of God starts with the same premise, but its final theme is a bit more nuanced. The two movies are different in just about every other way, but since I’ve seen Parasite a few times over the last few years, it was on my mind as I was watching City of God.

But mainly, City of God takes the nature vs. nurture idea and argues for both sides and, again, leans into the nuance. The plot is very convoluted and intricate (in a good way — it pays heavy attention to detail), so I’m not going to try to summarize much of it, but at its core it’s about the character differences between Rocket and Li’l Zé. They’re the same age and grew up in the same part of town when the “Tender Trio” — a group of teens who are the main up and coming criminals in the area — robbed local businesses and shared their spoils with the rest of the town. Rocket’s brother was part of the Trio, making Rocket want nothing to do with the criminal dealings of his home, while Li’l Zé sees the Trio from the outside and wants to do what they do, except bigger and better.

While there is more subtlety to their characters than those overarching generalizations, Rocket and Li’l Zé stay true to their main characteristics for most of the movie. Midway through the film, Rocket learns a lesson: “It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’” He always saw what Li’l Zé and his brother were doing as wrong and something he wanted no part of. He worked at a supermarket for a short amount of time before being fired for mistakenly being associated with a group of lawbreaking kids. 

So when Rocket comes to his conclusion that honesty doesn’t pay, he resolves to go out and steal money — but at each opportunity, when he started talking to the person from whom he was going to steal, he couldn’t bring himself to follow through because they all seemed too nice. The “honesty doesn’t pay” line seems to be the most widely-circulated line from the film, but it’s not actually what the movie is trying to say. Rocket’s dream has always been to be a photographer, and after he fails to convert to the criminal lifestyle, he is given the chance to be a photographer and he takes advantage of it. 

In fact, Rocket’s isn’t the only story that makes you believe these kids have a chance of living an honest life. Or at least, it’s not the only story that makes it obvious that the movie is arguing for living such a life. Knockout Ned was a peaceful man living an honest life until Li’l Zé, who had by then taken control of the majority of organized crime in the City of God, just happened to choose the wrong man’s girlfriend to rape and kill. This created a burning fire in Ned to get back at Li’l Zé, but he wanted to do it the “right” way. Ned didn’t want innocent people getting hurt as he tried to take out Li’l Zé’s business. But sadly, even the most virtuous character up to this point even had to make exceptions to his rule and he killed an innocent man in what he deemed to be a moment of necessity. The man’s son would come to be the one to ultimately take out Ned. Up until the moment Ned makes the exception and kills the innocent man, the movie treats his cause as righteous, but the moment we realize who the man’s son is, we’re brought back to its main theme of honesty. Ned basically signed his own death warrant when he abandoned his morals.

Getting back to the idea of nature vs. nurture, Rocket is the hopeful case that shows it is possible to get out of the seemingly hopeless, crime-ridden situation in the City of God. He is naturally averse to the constant immorality that he sees around him and decides that he wants to live his life doing the right thing. And in the end, it works out for him — he gets a job as a photographer and is able to finally get out of the City of God. 

But the movie also shows that Rocket is the exception. Li’l Zé is the nurture side of the argument — he grew up in a world where you literally have to fight to survive and this formed who he became. Before he was even a teenager, he decided that he wanted to lead this world of crime and that he would do it by force. He accomplished his goal, but was killed at a young age by a group of kids who had the same mindset. It’s highlighting that even while you can be like Rocket and decide you’ll live an honest life, the criminal life is still momentarily profitable. Li’l Zé was at the top until he was abruptly taken down. The very end of the film shows Rocket’s success, but he walks out of frame before it closes on the group of children, all with weapons, talking about their illiteracy and who they are going to kill next. It paints Rocket heavily as an outlier to the tragic, awful rule.

City of God is excellent. It pulls off a magic trick where it’s able to show the perspective of at least a dozen different characters and doesn’t necessarily place a value judgement on any of their actions until the very end. The unsettling cinematography from César Charlone and the direction from Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund absolutely take the movie to a level it wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Somehow it’s able to toe the line between entertaining and avert-your-eyes unwatchable to create something truly timeless and special.


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