In January 1969 a man named Carlos Lamarca, an officer of the Fourth Infantry Regiment based in Quitaúna, São Paulo, led a group of soldiers in a raid on the regiment’s arms depot. The officers, members of the clandestine Popular Revolutionary Vanguard (Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária or VPR), loaded an army truck with heavy munitions and escaped unscathed. Six months later, an organized armed group of men conducted an unprecedented mass escape of political prisoners from the high-security Lemos de Brito prison facility in Rio de Janeiro. These and other frequent, high-risk guerilla ops—during the roughest years of Brazil's rule by military junta—shared two strategies and outcomes: bank robberies, which provided a well-padded financial beehive, and military ambushes, which furnished a freer flow of cached weapons.
The redeeming potential of rising criminal activity (whether it was 'revolutionary' is a related but separate question) was much more than a mere matter of historical record. Armed struggle during the height of the national security state in Brazil became emboldened. One film in particular served as a harbinger. The 1977 film by Hector Babenco about a bank robber and probable anti-fascist who makes spectacular getaways grew in sympathetic consideration with the Brazilian public. I would go so far to say that Lúcio Flávio: o Passageiro da agonia is the bridge film between the redemptive bandit of the 1950s-1970s and the racialized, decontextualized bandido popularized in the 1990s and the new millennium, on the grounds that he appears to be the last to whom the public related.
The fictionalized persona of the real-life robber/anti-police bandit Lúcio Flavio is based on the infamous esquadrões da morte (death squads) divulged in the police crónicas (popularized journalistic accounts) in the 1960s. The term elite squad was an unofficial but colloquial one that has journalistic reports to thank as its benefactor. Police who combated crime à margem (or at the edge) of the law often had tenuous connections to such semi-organized squads with the effect of widespread illegality or sociopathy in their behavior.
The film opens in medias res in a rural interior landscape. Lúcio and his gang hold a man they accuse of being a traitor and snitch at gunpoint. They drive to an unpopulated part of the woods and shoot him in a lake. Following the lake murder they keep watch for local police at their local favela bar, and then rob a bank. Stringing together all the bank robbery scenes ever filmed in the history of cinema would produce a peculiar species of boredom, and Lúcio and his gang’s are no less rote and par for the course.
When the police officer assigned to find Lúcio shows up at the bar where he hangs out, he asks Lucio’s friend and wizened mentor, ‘Esse bandido é gente, vovô?’ (The phrase does not lend itself to an adroit translation but comes out something along the lines of Is he our kind of people?) The old man responds, using Lúcio’s nickname Noquinha instead of his given name:
I’m not talking about a bandit, I’m talking about a boy I knew. Whatever happened wasn’t his fault. (É, eu nao tô falando do bandido, eu tô falando de um menino que eu conheci. Se deu no que deu, não foi culpa dele.)
Without knowing why the police are searching for Lúcio the community from which he springs (and here the grandfatherly figure is dressed in white, the garment exhibiting his Candomblé origins) says he is a native son, and whatever he did ‘wasn’t his fault.’ Every black man, Lúcio’s spiritual guide discloses, ‘é malandro pra polícia’ (is a thug to the police).
Except that Lúcio is not a black man. It's true that the thievery and violence he and his gang inflict is limited to institutions (banks and the police). It's also true that the police blackmail, capture, torture, and finally imprison him (where he will eventually die of 19 stab wounds). Yet nothing accounts for his being compared to a black man profiled by police if not a social fabric that, despite or because of a headily long military dictatorship, is still somewhat intact, self-protective, even merciful.
A bandit is (most certainly not) a bandit. Whatever equalizing worked in the 1950s to early 1980s ended with Brazil's first foray into liberal democracy.
Despite Fernando Meirelles coming from an upper-middle class background and confessing to not having any familiarity with slum life before the film (the same goes for his co-director Kátia Lund, who was raised by American parents, though she co-directed the documentary Notícias de uma guerra particular/News of a Private War which distinguishes itself from City of God in incalculable ways) at the time of its release Cidade de Deus/City of God was hailed by UK and US reviewers for its gritty authenticity.
It’s that rare film that manages to be seductively entertaining without ever compromising its authenticity and power. (Megan Turner, New York Post)
It pulses with atmosphere and vibrates with authenticity. (Lisa Schwazbaum, Entertainment Weekly)
A potent and unexpected mixture of authenticity and flash. (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
There’s a casual authenticity to the performers and action that gives City of God a street-tough power. (Andrew Pulver, The Guardian)
Unlike the film on which it was based the original novel by anthropologist Paolo Lins, who grew up in Cidade de Deus, compares the young men with guns to outlaws combatting the police's rampant corruption.
When interviewed about the terrible situation in the favelas in News from a Private War (1998) Lins lays the blame on the 1964 coup, which overthrew the reformist government of João Goulart and replaced him with a military dictator. This ushered in a time when all opposition was brutally crushed and civil rights were suspended. Death squads backed and trained by the CIA, together with a corrupt police, helped the military keep their hold on the country until 1985.
The film has been criticized for what has been seen as its blinkered view of events; its only concession being Rocket’s voiceover that explains the political decision to relocate the poor to government housing on the edge of Rio.
The narration by Rocket (or Buscapé) may be homodiegetic, in that he inserts himself in the story as a first-person narrator, but not even that device prevents the film from being compromised by major historical and political omissions. 'We were accustomed to living in Vietnam' loses some of its tangible power when Rio de Janeiro is terrorized by a specter deracinated from the country's recent history.
That specter is Lil' Zé (or Zé Pequeno), a psychopath endowed with congenital madness since childhood when he indiscriminately kills patrons in a love motel. He immediately breaks out into peels of laughter afterward.
A kid, dude? I smoke, I snort. I’ve killed and robbed. I'm not a child, I’m a man. (Meu irmão, eu fumo, eu cheiro, já roubei, já matei. Não sou criança não. Sou sujeito homem.)
The Macumba priest who baptizes Lil' Dice with his new name Lil' Zé solemnly remarks that ‘Exú the Devil’ brought him to this world. Why remain in City of God, he asks, where God has forgotten you? Comparing this exchange to the one between the policeman and Lúcio's spiritual guide it is possible to deduce what is diabolical about Lil' Zé: he kills ordinary people. To be a bandit-hero, you must be an outlier of citizenship but protect against killing civilians (The Wire: 'Have you ever known Omar to do a citizen?'). To be a bandit-anti/hero is to end up with Lil' Zé.
Meirelles said that when he made the film using non-actors (like Leandro Firmino who plays him) he didn't want the viewer to see a faithful interpretation of the character of Lil' Zé but to see Lil' Zé himself. This got complicated by the fact that the so-called real and authentic Pequeno was arrested for trying to watch the film that earnestly claimed its authenticity. A 28-year old real-life drug trafficker and namesake of Zé Pequeno was arrested for trying to watch the film's pre-screening. From the intimations of the police it appeared that the filmmakers had invited him there, though the invite would have been the least of their worries. That Meirelles and Lund had been in contact or negotiation for filming inside a favela already put them in hot water with the police (Meirelles said he had obtained permission through the gang leader in Cidade Alta to film his movie there).
Violence related to drug trafficking relates to a form of capitalism labeled illicit since its profits are outside the terms and limitations of the state. The language within that ecosystem, however, reflects a knowable business attitude, à la Wall Street. ‘A firma,’ as Jon Lee Anderson reported in 'Gangland,' means business in the lingo of trafficking, e.g. ‘a firma vai bem’ or ‘business is going well.'
In City of God and the crop of films it spawned, extreme violence is read as an erratic phenomenon, a superficies without clear ideologies or political interests. One of its outcomes is the high degree of the racialization of crime.
bell hooks once articulated the notion that in mass-audience artistic representation, blacks are endowed with transgressive capability while whites remain in the comfort (or prison) of ‘static’ subjectivity. Maniacal evil has a face, and that face nearly always glints darkly. Maniacal evil for much of the past ten years of internationally-renowned cinema has been embodied in Lil' Zé, a character whose most desired firearm is the American-made AR-15, an assault rifle that has been featured prominently in recent news.