Understand why ‘City of God’, which turns 20, divided opinions and went down in history

On August 30, 2002, exactly 20 years ago, a Brazilian film reached 99 movie theaters. It took a little time to discover that it was not just another painful release of national cinema, which was trying to make space in the closed commercial circuit – it was a real atomic bomb that landed in theaters. God’s city, directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Kátia Lund, sets the focus on a Rio de Janeiro community, with part of the residents involved in drug trafficking and the other part exposed to the effects of crime. So far, nothing more. How many had we already seen with this theme, to the point of justifying the name of a separate genre, the so-called “favela movie”?

It would soon be seen that the film did not fit in the pigeonhole or easy generalizations. The cast, for starters. In God’s city, there was one or another professional actor or actress, like Matheus Nachtergaele or Graziella Moretto, for example. But most of the troupe was made up of people from the favela itself. Anonymous adults, young people and boys were prepared to interpret the characters portrayed in the novel-report by Paulo Lins, himself a former inhabitant of the northwestern neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro who gives the work its title and contains an unthought-of self-irony in its name.

As soon as the film began to be seen, something different was felt in the air. On the one hand, there was easy communication with the audience, especially with young people. Those actors that no one knew who they were breathed naturally both in the way they spoke and in the way they walked, relating to others, facing without taking their eyes off the hard life that lay ahead. It was the characters themselves they played. Some phrases became catchphrases: “Dadinho is the c…! My name is now Zé Pequeno!”, said a menacing drug store owner played by Leandro Firmino da Hora.

Other boys also became household names like Douglas Silva (Dadinho, still a boy) Alexandre Rodrigues (Search), Roberta Rodrigues (Berenice), Darlan Cunha, Alice Braga (Angelica), Philippe Haagensen (Bene), Jonathan Haagensen and Seu Jorge (Mané Galinha), until then with experience in music, not cinema.

Ginga and charm

There was a lot of swing, music and charm between them. But also a lot of violence and, what to some observers seemed “obscene”, children wielding weapons bigger than their arms. This was an argument among critics, because obscene, in fact, it was real life, not the cinema that represented it on screen.

The public was not begged. He began to fill theaters and comment on the film. At the end of his commercial career, God’s city could count no less than 3 million, 370 thousand spectators, stupendous numbers for a Brazilian production with such indigestible theme.

Criticism was divided. Part detonated the work without mercy, accusing it of a Fascist view of the popular classes. Another part considered it a true masterpiece. Some, more colonized, tried to say that it was the Brazilian cinema coming of age letter, who had finally learned to do it in the dominant style, that of the made in Hollywood cinema. A few were able to see the radical force that powered the film, without failing to notice its problems and possible ethical impasses.

Influential critic and university professor Ivana Bentes wrote an explosive text called Sertões and Favelas in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema: Aesthetics and Cosmetics of Hunger. In the text, he comments on several titles, including God’s city. He compared the engaged manifesto of Glauber Rocha (The Aesthetics of Hunger1965) with what seemed to him the depoliticized seduction of images of God’s city: “symptom film of the reiteration of a sinister social prognosis: the consumable spectacle of the poor killing each other”. And he concluded: “We are no longer fighting against the exotic foreign look at poverty and Brazil that transformed everything ‘into a strange tropical surrealism‘, as Glauber said in 1965. We are capable of producing and circulating our own clichés in which healthy, shiny blacks with a gun in their hands cannot come up with any other good idea than mutual extermination”.

Douglas Silva played Zé Pequeno in 'City of God'

Douglas Silva played Zé Pequeno in ‘City of God’

Photo: Publicity / Estadão


While we fought among ourselves, abroad the reputation of God’s city appeared and grew. Launched out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, he began to build his notoriety in Europe. It was not nominated for one of the vacancies for best foreign film at the Oscars, but, the following year, it did something more difficult by receiving four nominations for the Hollywood Academy Awards – direction (Fernando Meirelles), adapted screenplay (Bráulio Mantovani), mounting (Daniel Rezende) and photography (Caesar Charlone).

Even today, 20 years later, it is one of the most beloved and most cited recent Brazilian films by international sources. In search of the Preply platform, God’s city appears as the second most watched non-English language film in the world, behind French The Untouchables and ahead of the also French The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulainfrom Korean (and Oscar winner) Parasitefrom Italian Life is Beautiful and others.

The embryo of the polemic success of God’s city was perhaps already embedded in the book on which it is inspired. With its rawness and redundancy, Paulo Lins’s novel astonished his readers. Some of them are highly qualified, like Roberto Schwarz, one of the greatest literary critics in the country and author of essential books on Machado de Assis (To the Winner the Potatoes and A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism).

When reviewing the book in 1997, Schwarz praised the “pacing that fascinates the reader until the end” from the entry of the local bandits on the scene and their first heist. Aspects such as the raw, naturalistic tone and the internal point of view of the community (criticized by commentators who called it out of context) were praised by Schwarz as strengths of the work. In short, Paulo Lins emerged as someone new in Brazilian literature at the end of the 1990s. The novel’s freshness is undeniable.

off the curve

Likewise, in the early 2000s, God’s city, the film, sounded like something quite out of the loop, a UFO, new, modern, current. It hit the market at a particular time. The dismantling of Brazilian cinema operated by the Collor government at the beginning of the previous decade was long gone. Collor had fallen, Brazil got rid of hyperinflation and, it was felt, was entering a virtuous circle, as today, in retrospect, is confirmed – the famous 20 years of breeze, economic stability and democracy, from 1994 to 2013. Even so , chronic problems remained untouched, with an air of immutable. In particular, the enormous disparity in our social architecture, the proliferation of underserved communities, the crime and violence fueled by the easy appeal of the drug trade.

God’s cityboth the book and the film, entered the account of reliable portraits of the brazilian social maladjustmentbut no longer in the engaged tuning for realist literature or the critical edge of New Cinema. It was another way, another swing, another rhythm. The humor and that raw charm played on the screen, while talking about serious and tragic situations, provoked repulsion in some, doubts in others and fascination perhaps in most. The strength of the young cast (prepared by Fátima Toledo), the inventive photography of Caesar Charlonethe rhythmic montage of Daniel Rezende and a lysergic soundtrack did the job with the audience. No one can deny: the film had a rare pulse and it was a pleasure to see (and hear) it on screen. Continues to be.


As later noted, it was a work in tune with a more individualistic, more pop, less serious and with less horizons than the previous one. Attitudes that can be seen in a positive or negative way, depending on the point of view of the observer. The kids, who didn’t care about aesthetic-social reflections, went to the cinemas en masse, enjoyed themselves and went around repeating cool phrases, taken from the mouths of drug dealers. This naturalized coexistence with crime was already our thing and perhaps allowed us to glimpse the country that would emerge a generation later, without more swing, without more charm, without more humor – just violence in its raw state, stripped of music and poetry.

Check out an interview with filmmaker Fernando Meirelles

The premiere is 20 years old: how do you rate the film today?

The film ended up generating a series of other films in the universe of communities, some called it the “favela movie”. I don’t know if this wave came about for good or ill, but even though these films are mainly focused on community violence, I think there’s something positive there: showing is better than ignoring the existence of communities. Twenty years ago, we used to say that there were many favelas in Rio as if it were a transitory situation; today it is clearer that the favelas are not in Rio, they are part of the city. But today I would not God’s city that way. God’s city today would have a Marielle or the seed of cultural movements and the black movement, this the film failed to anticipate. In these 20 years we have learned what the afrofuturism and the idea of ​​working with the strength of communities and not only with their needs. I wish I had glimpsed it back there.

What is the legacy for you, for the people who participated, and for contemporary Brazilian cinema?

For me, it was the passport to enter the international cinema circuit, something I never planned. The wave passed, luckily I had a board in my hand, I went there and surfed. At the time, it was supposed to be just a good story about a reality that intrigued me, made for the Brazilian audience, but something got out of hand and the film found another place. Many actors or people who participated in the process are now respected professionals who have built a career. Some actors were murdered, a few were arrested, and many continue to struggle every day to find a space. I keep in touch with some. In season, God’s city took a good audience back to theaters to watch national film, but before long the numbers were supplanted by many other films, which is great. It was just a rung of a ladder.

At the time, the controversy was fierce – aesthetics x cosmetics of hunger. What is the residue of this debate? Did it sell out at the time, did it bring good ideas or was it more heat than light? Did it pass or did it leave reflections still alive to think about cinema today?

Perhaps due to the international acceptance this label has not been stuck on him for a long time. At the time, I had already thought that the idea of ​​”hunger cosmetics” did not apply to the film, it was just a good pun, in fact very publicity, and it worked for a while. If there was an effort on our part, it was to try to make it as authentic as possible, almost documentary at times, starting with the cast and the book that generated the script, written within Cidade de Deus. There was nothing in the film that any brand would want to see in their communication. The fact is that there is no right way to tell a story – even if it were “publicity”, it would still be worth it. Each film finds its way of narrating, what matters is touching hearts and minds.

How do you see current Brazilian cinema and why, despite its merits, is it unable to produce controversial works such as ‘City of God’ and perhaps ‘Tropa de Elite’?

I think our cinema is at its best, mature, fruitful and diverse. There are more and more well-made films that reveal who we are. But I’m missing a movie that portrays the side of Brazil that we are discovering, the side that likes guns, that is racist, that doesn’t care about the destruction of our forests and doesn’t understand what empathy is. A film that answers those questions that Terence Malick asks in Beyond the Red Line: where does this great evil come from? From what seed and from what root was it born? Does this darkness have a name? This cruelty, this hatred, how did they find us? What happened to us?

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