As noted critic Wesley Morris points out, “there’s something distasteful in the rote way this film introduces us to two dozen hapless, heartless kids and doesn’t care enough to make us feel for them. It would rather doll up the slum and memorialize the trigger-happy thugs infesting it”. But its roots lie in the evolution of Fernando Meirelles as a director of feature films from his humble origins as an ad-filmmaker in his native Brazil(Schwarz, 2001).
The characterization of Li’l Dice must have been the most challenging to director Meirelles. From his first victim in the form of Rocket’s brother to the later drug-dealing, megalomaniacal gang leader to his ruthless control of the place’s cartel a consistent and coherent picture of Li’l Dice emerges. Meirelles must be credited for his stellar role in bringing this challenging narrative to screen. All through Li’l Dice’s different adventures, the narrative alternates between the innocuous to the diabolical. For example, for every horrifying scene of Li’l dice’s atrocities, there’s a “touristic splendour” usually involving Rocket. Yet, if feature films have anything to do with inclusiveness, this “sweat and adrenaline infested machismo cocktail” has nothing to offer women audiences. Excluding nearly one half of potential audience makes City of God a niche movie, targeted to the young adult male age group. To this extent, the film does nothing to bridge existing inequalities between the genders in what is a male-dominated Brazilian society.
The movie’s ineffectiveness in serving as an agent of changing social policies in Brazil is captured accurately in the following passage:
“If there’s an indictment here, it never surfaces. Taken from a Paulo Lins novel and based on a true story (as the film is happy to boast at its conclusion), the film sensualizes the violence cycle and makes a fetish of poverty. What ought to be devastating and tragic about ”City of God” is discomfiting in its offhandedness. This isn’t a movie; it’s a soulless pictorial.” (Schwarz, 2001)
Another unusual theme of the film is the way it demystifies the darker realities of Rio de Janeiro. For example, movies such as That Night in Rio that have achieved critical acclaim focus on the genteel aspects of life in the city as opposed to City of God that concentrates on the city’s underworld through out. There’s no equivalent film in the post Second World War period that depicts the lives of drug kingpins and their counterparts in such a electrifying way. In fact, the tempo for it is set right at the beginning scene and is maintained throughout. Director Meirelles employs subtlety as well as he shows examples of “young people managing to carve out successful careers”. But disappointingly, most of the rest of the film concerns “unbroken cycles of squalor”, making the social class divisions all the starker (Schwarz, 2001).
Alongside the co-director Kátia Lund, Meirelles goes to great lengths to keep the audience engrossed in the story. The narrator of the story, Rocket, appears in periodic interludes to inform the audience about the sequence to come later. The directors also employ the technique of repeating some important scenes that were left incomplete earlier. Hence, the sequences are not chronologically arranged but interwoven based on the context. By employing this device, the filmmakers take away the strain of watching a two hour long movie that has generous displays of violence. Also, by using this technique, the directors are able to show how “a perceived hero becomes a villain, and characters we assume are going to be around at the end suddenly exit the City of God” (Kavanagh, 2002). So much for the film’s technical merits, but in terms of its emphasis on providing a solution to the chaotic life of the City of God, it fails. For example,
“If one of the moral responsibilities of the movies is to put you in places where you’d never go and live lives you’d never live, then “City of God” is great moviemaking. This one admits no other moral responsibilities. It merely gazes pitilessly at the real, and maybe that reality is too hard to take. It offers scant optimism to policymakers of any stripe. It advises liberals that social programs are pointless when applied to the violent vitality of the streets, and it advises conservatives that stern bromides about responsibility are as ineffective against the will to violence as a fistful of feathers. It says man is dark and doomed and stupid. But it also says he’s alive and kicking and magnificent.” (Kavanagh, 2002)