"I could not help myself. It is my nature." Self destruction - "Its my Nature", said the Scorpion...
"You fool!" croaked the frog, "Now we shal
The scorpion shrugged, and did a lit
"I could not help mys
Then they both sank into the muddy
Self destruction - "Its my N 2
ll both die! Why on earth did you do that?"
ttle jig on the drowning frog's back.
self. It is my nature."
y waters of the swiftly flowing river.
Nature", said the Scorpion... 3
alejandro alejandro gonzález gonzález iñárritu iñárritu
ear the end of the 154-minute running time of Alejandro GonzĂĄlez IĂąĂĄrritu's exhilarating debut Amores Perros, an old man, sitting by the side of the road, takes time out to look up at the sky. The character, El Chivo, is an ex -revolutionary down on his luck who's been contracted to assassinate a businessman, & he's waiting beside a telegraph pole outside his target's office in Mexico City, staking things out. But for the moment, El Chivo looks up & squints, the sun darting behind the pole, then out again, its fresh light flickering on the old man's weathered face. It's a masterful & exquisite moment, one that lets you catch your breath & reflect on the street-level urgency of the previous two hours. An ambitious multiplotted portrait of overlapping lives in contemporary Mexico City, Amores Perros rarely relaxes its grip. Its opening view of the city is as an accelerated blur, glimpsed from the window of a speeding car that's about to crash; its subsequent images are of a place always on the move, teeming with incident, where the collision of coincidence & the irruption of violence are ever present. This opening car-crash set-piece is the film's pivotal plot point. Amores Perros is divided into three sections, each devoted to otherwise unconnected characters whose lives are affected by the crash. Unemployed teenager Octavio heads up the first, alongside his brother Ramiro & Ramiro's wife Susana. In part this episode plays out like a clammy domestic melodrama -in the cramped, overheated confines of their small family flat, Octavio falls in love with Susana & vows to take her away from her abusive husband. But in order to pay for this, he takes to entering his beloved Rottweiler Cofi in the illegal dogfights regularly organised by an underworld connection. These sequences have already earned the film a degree of notoriety in the UK. A title card at the beginning might reassure us that no animals were harmed during the film's making, but
the dogfights are still viv affairs -though arguably it termath that's most telling of the dead dogs, their coa with blood, being dragged o hulks of meat by their indi owners, or of those barely ing splashed into action to again by handfuls of soapy, water. But while these sequ 8
â€œA sprawling saga of lives in a violent urban environmentâ€?
vid, fierce t's the afg -glimpses ats glossy off like ifferent alive beo fight , blood-red uences are
gruelling, they're not gratuitous. Animal suffering is an index of human cruelty. The parallel is made explicit towards the end when two brothers determined to kill one another are chained to either side of a room & strain at their binds like dogs held in check before a fight. Dogs get a rough deal in Amores
Perros: whereas the first section sees them tear at one another's throats in order to enrich their owners, the second features a pampered pet pooch Richie belonging to Spanish model Valeria which disappears under the polished floorboards of its owner's new flat where it nearly starves to death while being gnawed at by rats. Like Octavio, Valeria is involved in the crash that opens the movie - & the film charts her slow recovery in the flat 9
her lover Daniel has bought her. If the first section unfurled at a fiery, breakneck pace, this one is more of a slow-burner -although no less intense. A mocking echo of happier times, Richie can be heard yelping occasionally, scurrying underneath their feet as Daniel & Valeria attempt to figure out what went wrong between them. The segment is a piercing account of a relationship falling apart -& a painstaking exploration of the hold domestic spaces have over us- shot
through with a line of dark absurdist humour. A sprawling saga of lives in a violent urban environment, with flashes of self-conscious narrative (the film shuttles back & forth in time) & overlapping plotlines, Amores Perros will inevitably invite comparisons with Quentin Tarantino's first two movies. In fact, it seems to be goading us to make them: in the opening scene, which takes place inside Octavio's car as it hurtles through the city, Octavio's friend attempts to stem the blood from a wound Cofi has just sustained much like the extemporised first-aid in the back of a getaway car in Reservoir Dogs; lat10
first two episodes as an impassive witness to events. Living in a one-room squat & spending his days wandering the streets followed by the troupe of dogs he cares for, he seems to have retreated from the world some time ago. A former revolutionary, his idealism has long since flagged -when a corrupt police commander asks him why he doesn't wear his glasses any more, his resigned reply is "If God wants me to see blurry, I'll see blurry". Concentrating on El Chivo's attempt to set up one last hit -& his efforts to find out more about the daughter who believes him dead- the film's final reel also catches up with Octavio, Ramiro & Susana. There's a courageously bleak edge to the turn of events ("To make God laugh, tell him your plans," Susana says of Octavio's hopes) & it's tempting to read a political critique underlying the harrowing portrait of a place that seems to drive its inhabitants to the edge of despair. González Iñárritu himself has stated that the film illustrates the legacy of 71 years of single-party rule which ended in December 2000: a society where the chasm between rich & poor is evergrowing & crime seems the only means of subsistence for millions of people. Yet the film snatches hope where it can and it's perhaps González Iñárritu's greatest achievement that, after all its grim stretches, Amores perros comes to a close with a note of muted optimism.
er there's a playful parody of the torture scene from that film. But if the comparison works, it's only superficially: Amores Perros' moments of violence are forceful but fleeting (when El Chivo shoots dead a businessman in a restaurant, all we see is a trickle of blood bubbling & thickening on a hotplate), & despite the occasional reversal of the film's chronology, it's largely stylistically unaffected. The final section follows El Chivo, who's been glimpsed throughout the 11
alejandro gonzĂĄlez iĂąĂĄrritu
No sooner had Amores Perros won a prize at the Cannes film
festival than the RSPCA rushed to attack its bloody scenes of dogfighting. Arguing that "context is no defence", the society declared: "Anything which involves goading or cruelty to animals is unacceptable." That debate could now become more than academic. Following its British premiere at Edinburgh, Amores Perros (Love's a Bitch) is about to be picked up by a major UK distributor for release later this year.
The film's director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, insists he was scrupulous about not harming any animals during filming. Despite realistic-looking scenes in which dogs leap at each other, fangs apparently primed to bite, a lot was done in the shooting and editing "the same way I'd avoid hurting somebody in a car accident". The dogs were wearing plastic muzzles apparently clearly visible if you freeze -frame the film on video - while the ones that appear dead and bloodied were 12
to British distribution, Gonzalez Inarritu is open to suggestions about cuts. "If it was just frames, maybe. But if they wanted me to take out the dogfights, that would be impossible. They are part of the motion of the story and the characters." The movie is an intricately plotted portmanteau of three stories, linked by a car crash and told at carcrash speed. The first story has a group of povertylevel kids getting involved in the illicit and extremely violent dog-fighting scene; the second is a macabre Tale of the Unexpected about a supermodel, a luxury apartment and an ill-fated lapdog; and the third features an itinerant hitman who moves through different levels of city society, bringing all the strands together. Gonzalez Inarritu insists that context is very much a mitigating factor, and that the dogfighting theme is part of an overall panorama of life in his home town. "I wanted to make a film about Mexico City, where there are millions of dogs. The dogfight is a cruel reality. But more than the fights, we were interested in the relations between dogs and people."
made up and drugged for 20 minutes at a time. The film's animal trainer is very respected in animal welfare circles, Gonzalez Inarritu says - "and he used his own dogs, so he cared about them". In Mexico, where the film has been a big hit, the press hardly commented on the animal cruelty question. There will certainly be more of a problem here. The British Board of Film Classification is rigorous about films that show or even suggest animal violence, saying: "Baiting animals is a no-no as far as we are concerned, no matter how good the film is." While the subject matter could be a serious obstacle
He and his screenwriter, novelist Guillermo Arriaga Jordan, took on the city with Balzacian ambition, tackling it on various levels, from low-life to penthouse. "Many Mexican directors," he says, "are scared to shoot in Mexico City, which is why there are many stories in Mexican cinema about little rural towns, or set a hundred years ago. It's difficult to shoot there, not just technically but because it's such a complex mix. All the city's frontiers are falling - now you see rich districts where there are a lot of 13
poor people." The three stories in Amores Perros are more or less true. The character El Chivo (The Goat) was based on a story that Arriaga had heard about a teacher who disappeared to join a guerrilla cell and was never seen again (in the film, he becomes a hitman). The story in which a model's lapdog is lost under her floorboards is also based on fact. "But in real life it ended when they noticed a bad smell from under the floor." The film's intricately twisted structure has a ring of Pulp Fiction, but
Gonzalez Inarritu isn't a big fan of Tarantino. "I like the way he plays with structure - but I don't know why he gets the credit. It's really William Faulkner; it's a literary structure that has existed for a long time." And Gonzalez Inarritu insists he takes his violence very seriously. "When you live in a city, as I do, where violence is really in the streets and people die every day, there's nothing funny about it. We try to show that violence has a consequence - when you create violence, it turns against you." Although Gonzalez Inarritu only attended two fights himself, he insists that his lurid vision of the dogfighting underworld is "very, very accurate. Thirty per cent of 14
the people in the movie are real people from the dogfighting world, and we used some real fighting dogs. It's shown the way they do it, in empty swimming pools and backlots. The people can be dangerous - there are drunk people, druggie people, violent people, and some of them take their children of four, five years old. But I don't judge them. For them it's like bullfighting or going fishing for them it's natural, something you do on a Saturday." Gonzalez Inarritu admits he was afraid to handle the animals himself: "These dogs are real motherfuckers." One animal used in the film was a se-
curity dog, trained to leap at a person's chest, and able to break ribs in the process. Gonzalez Inarritu came to film after a career as a radio DJ on Mexico's WFM rock station, where he had a daily show, "telling stories to people, trying to keep them entertained for three hours. That was my training as a storyteller. You create stories with music, you create soundtracks for the lives of the people in the city four million listeners every day." And four million stories in the naked city, no doubt. So far Gonzalez Inarritu has managed to tell three of them in one blast. Let's hope there are more to come.
Sight & Sound Interview Bernardo Pérez Soler : With a long career in Mexican media behind him, the 37-year-old director was far from unknown in his home country when Amores perros premiered at Cannes 2000, winning the critics' week prize then being nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign-Language Film and going on to be a big hit in Mexico itself. At the age of 23 Iñárritu was a disc jockey, producer and director at WFM, one of two rock radio stations that revolutionised Mexico City's youth culture in the mid and late 80s; in 1990 he left to take over the production of promotional spots for Mexico's largest television network. Shortly afterwards he founded Zeta Films, a hybrid of advertising agency and production company responsible for some of the most memorable commercials seen on Mexican television in the past decade. He has also directed Detrás del dinero/After the Money, a pilot for a series which even by his own admission was a failure: technically accomplished but bogged down by an overly loose plot. Bernardo Pérez Soler: The screenplay for 'Amores perros' was the result of a three-year collaboration with novelist Guillermo Arriaga Jordán. You've said you have almost antagonistic views of the world, so what allowed you to establish a working relationship? Alejandro González Iñárritu: Where we were in agreement was regarding the deficiencies of Mexican cinema. We loathe the government-financed movie-making that seems to operate by the maxim: "If nobody understands and nobody goes to see a movie, that must mean it's a masterpiece."Among Mexican film-makers claiming to make "art cinema" there seems to be no interest in allowing audiences to connect emotionally with what's happening on screen. So what got us started was that resentment, that anger. Our aim was to make movies that would admit different readings and reflections, rattling the audience while being entertaining. How did the script for 'Amores perros' evolve? At the beginning Guillermo talked to me
about its basic structure - that it was about different characters coming into contact with each other through their dogs and through a car crash. I told him an anecdote about a friend's dog that died after getting trapped underneath the floorboards, which Guillermo then incorporated into the script. It took us the longest time to finish the first episode: practically a year. To begin with it was totally different: it had no brother, no sister-in-law, it was a very naive, romantic love story between Octavio and the girl next door. Over that first year this episode became much stronger. By contrast, the other two sections remained almost as they were conceived. So we spent the next two years editing the script. It was tough to slim it down; we got rid of about 40 pages. The hardest part, however, was managing to put the different chapters together with subtlety, so the hand of the writer and director go unnoticed. You both spent your childhoods in working -class neighbourhoods of Mexico City. Did you have direct contact with dogfights during those years? I think a movie like Amores perros could only have been conceived by someone who's lived this long in a city like the one we live in. As for dogs, Guillermo had a very fierce Rottweiler called Cofi, like the one in the movie, that also killed a fight dog in the street. But while we were both aware of clandestine dogfighting, neither of us had ever been near any of it. So before the shooting I had to go along to a couple of fights to find out what they're like - who organises them, where they happen, what are the stakes, what language the participants use. The critic Jonathan Romney has said that each of the stories in 'Amores perros' belongs to a different genre: the first is "hard, low-life realism", the second a "cruel moral tale of the unexpected", the third a psychological thriller. Was attaining this balance between different genres one of your aims? Guillermo and I have discussed that. For him, Amores perros is indeed an experiment in genres, but not so much so for 16
me. To me it's rather a difference in tone. I think this film can be considered a drama, almost a tragedy, for with the car crash destiny comes into play. While the first and third episodes are profoundly realistic, the second is somehow set apart what happens in it borders on the absurd, even on the comedy of the absurd. So for me it's not so much a movie split into three separate stories as one single story split into three chapters. It's a story that deals with human pain, love and death which make no distinction of social class. 'Amores perros' literally shows us Mexico City in a light we've never seen before. What principles defined the film's camerawork and other visual aspects? What really mattered was the characters' stories, so I wanted a realistic feel, almost like a documentary. I've always favoured handheld camera because as well as stimulating the actors' freedom and spontaneity it's a way of shooting that faithfully reproduces the human gaze. I wanted to create the impression of documenting real, unplanned events so the camera was subordinated to the mise en scĂ¨ne, unlike in many other films where the scenic arrangement is dependent on the camera position. On another point, I like Nan Goldin's photographs very much, so for my first meeting with director of photography Rodrigo Prieto I took in a book by Goldin to exemplify what I wanted to achieve in terms of coloration, grain, visceral appeal. Curiously enough, he brought the same book with him, so from the very beginning we had a similar vision.
Brigitte Broch, the production designer, didn't know Goldin, but from her own research produced moods that fit perfectly with what Rodrigo and I wanted. We did many colour tests, thousands of lab treatments, and finally decided to use silver tint on the negative, which makes blacks darker and whites brighter. This technique is rarely used because it's very risky: after 10 years the images might disappear from the negative. Nevertheless, I wanted to elaborate my own aesthetic approach, and since the light in Mexico City is so poor, so sad and grey, we decided to take the risk. I think it was the right choice because the result is fantastic. Silver tint makes the film shout "bark". Your command of narrative rhythm is remarkable for someone who's only made a 30-minute television pilot. That's true, but I've spent 15 years telling stories. My job in WFM for five years was to keep 2 million people entertained for three hours a day every day using what you might call "musical narrative". I created atmospheres, moods, states of mind - a soundtrack for Mexico City lives. In radio I learned how to hold an audience captive. And then I've scripted and directed hundreds of television ads - they're small yet highly complex exercises in narrative that have to catch viewers' attention and get a specific message across in a reduced period of time. Advertising has its downsides, but it teaches some good things, and a knack for synthesising is one of them. Then the television pilot showed me which 18
things I still needed to work on. Such as? One of the downsides of working in advertising was that I became obsessed with form; it mattered more than content. Not that I now think the latter is more important, but undoubtedly there must be harmony between the two.
a pozole has all kinds of ingredients - some healthy and some not so healthy - in this film contrasting and contradictory elements exist side by side. A good example is El Chivo/The Goat. Our first impression is of a sinister person, but as the film progresses we realise he's actually very humane. He may be a killer, but he's not immune to love, which finally redeems him. Is he your favourite character?
Most film-makers living in Mexico City turn a blind eye to its problems or treat them superficially. It's like politicians! Not only have they failed to face reality as it is, but they've attempted to manipulate it, to avoid it. We're an evasive society and as a result we're little inclined towards dialogue. We tend to take points of view that differ from our own as a personal offence. It's hard to move on in Mexico because neither the politicians nor the other citizens engage in dialogue - they adopt radical positions from which it's difficult to draw any common ground. Amores perros runs against the grain. It's a film in which there's dialogue between different social classes, in which you're not faced simply with good guys and bad guys, down-and-outs or yuppies. The broth is richer. Characters are multidimensional, which makes it difficult to make definitive judgements on them or their actions. I'd say Amores perros is like a big pozole [a rich broth made with Indian maize and meat garnished with chopped radish, lettuce and onion]. Just as
I like him very much as I think he represents a lot of different things. For instance, he embodies those questions we all ask ourselves at certain points in our lives: who are we? where are we going? what have we become? The Goat starts to think about his failure to fulfil his dreams thanks to Cofi, who acts as a mirror on which he's reflected. So it's not just love that redeems The Goat, it's also the dog. Man redeemed by a beast; this idea fascinates me. The Goat is also one of the ingredients that lends a political dimension to the film. Amores perros is a very political film, though not overtly so. At the end of the day, it portrays the effects of 70-odd years of an extremely authoritarian political regime. Until just 10 years ago, people like The Goat had no voice, no legal platform from which to express their opinions. The left was brutally repressed and many leftists joined the guerrilla movements. So The Goat represents this lack of dialogue, of communication, of freedom of expression. 19
I think the character can be read as a metaphor for the recent changes in Mexican society. Throughout the film he's aware his vision is poor but he doesn't do anything about it until the Cofi incident. Moreover, during all this time his thoughts are at least as hazy as his eyesight. Mexican society shared many of The Goat's characteristics seemingly resigned to the impossibility of change, it took refuge in deep cynicism. Over the last 15 years, however, we have slowly recuperated our vision. And I think the film's box-office success is a testimony to these transformations.
I hadn't seen it that way, but it's true: people have put their glasses on. They've realised it's better to see things for what they are, however unpleasant, than to avoid or distort them. The fact that we've broken out of 71 years of inertia suggests we're a society that's beginning to gain the confidence we need to face up to change and its consequences. I was stunned that the film was a commercial success. I never imagined so many people would go to see such a long film with such harsh subject matter. And I agree that what's going on in Mexico now had a lot to do with it. 20
Which film-makers influenced you, and in which cinematic tradition would you place your film? Guillermo and I were very taken with the collaboration between Paul Auster and Wayne Wang in Smoke and Blue in the Face. In Amores perros we had a similar starting point to the latter: characters from different walks of life whom chance brings together. This is the only conscious influence I can think of. I suppose subconsciously many other film-makers may have influenced me; I have very eclectic taste. The directors who have surprised me most in recent years are Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-Wai, who have inspired me by experi-
menting formally and inventing new ways of narrative. I don't think Amores perros belongs to any particular cinematic trend. In general it could be placed in the category of 'nonwestern cinema' - certainly it has nothing to do with either Hollywood or what's being made in Europe. I think western cinema has been in a state of crisis over the last 10 years. It's been unable to find a way of renewing itself in terms of structure, form and narrative. It's stagnated. http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/ feature/78
Amores Perros Love’s A Bitch, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000
cently released from prison, he attends to a pack of stray dogs and works reluctantly as a hired killer for the same cop who put him away.
From its gripping opening sequence, a
The frantic pace, skewed time structure and
frenetic car chase through an apoca-
plenteous blood-letting will invite mislead-
lyptic Mexico City, to its final im-
ing comparisons to Tarantino, the grave dis-
age of man and dog setting off into a
tinction being that Iñárritu does not go in
vast and empty landscape, Amores Per-
for stylized violence. His depiction of the
ros strikes like a bullet in the gut
urban jungle is not about hip gunplay and
– wincing pain giving way to pro-
even hipper wordplay, and he lingers on shots
longed, dreadful suffering and, a
of charred bullet entry holes in a decidedly
great deal of blood later, finally
un-sexy manner. Rather, Amores Perros con-
reaching a surprisingly serene end.
cerns itself with the everyday navigation of
First-time feature director Alejandro
life’s traps, those which lay in wait with
González Iñárritu delivers a sober-
jaws poised to irrevocably alter our false
ing, epochal meditation on the dog-
sense of security in one fateful instant. If
eat-dog modern world, vis-à-vis a
misfortune clamps down with steel teeth, es-
trendy intersecting narrative set
cape may require chewing off a foot.
amidst the luxury and squalor that uncomfortably rub shoulders in the
Like my own, Iñárritu’s metaphors are heavy-
world’s most crowded city. It’s Mag-
handed at times and not wholly original,
nolia south of the border, with a
though through utter conviction he manages on
grimly realistic car crash taking the
the whole to make them resonate. As in the
place of biblical plague as denoue-
case of man’s best friend, who figures pre-
dominantly (and harrowingly – a disclaimer vows that no dogs were hurt during the pro-
Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an
duction, but it looks awfully real enough) in
audacious, soulful young man who car-
the film’s examination of humans’ beastly ca-
ries a torch for his battered sister-
pabilities. “Masters take after their dogs,”
in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche). In a
a character remarks, an axiom that does not
desperate attempt to rescue her and
refer only to physical resemblance. Humans
flee oppressive barrio life, Octavio
are just another domesticated breed, and like
offers up his rottweiler to the bar-
dogs are capable of kindness and loyalty as
barous world of back alley dogfights.
long as our needs are met. Take away those
Across town but a world away, wealthy
creature comforts, and we’ll do whatever is
middle-aged executive Daniel (Alvaro
necessary to survive. The film makes little
Guerrero) deserts his family for su-
exception for family; rather, the characters’
permodel Valeria (Goya Toledo), only
most malevolent acts are inflicted upon their
to have her looks and career shat-
own. Moreover, we can exhibit compassion and
tered in a sudden accident (the
cruelty at once, as in a scene where Octavio
aforementioned car crash). Furthering
lovingly bathes his dog before sending him
their torment, Valeria’s precious
into the ring. The film’s dire realization
pooch becomes trapped beneath the
being – man is capable of even greater vi-
floorboards of their apartment.
ciousness than dogs; we’ll even kill for mon-
Rounding out the triptych is El Chivo
ey. This, the film imparts, is the true mo-
(Emilio Echevarria), an older street
ment of trial. Is someone who is taught cru-
person and former communist guerrilla
elty – forced to accept cruelty in order to
who left his own family long ago. Re-
survive – to be blamed for exacting that cru22
elty? The performances are unpretentious and uniformly excellent, though Bernal and Echevarria are given the most to do and are the clear standouts. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto keeps his camera close to the actors, seemingly to hone in on the range of raw emotion conveyed in their expressions – years of regret and defeat deeply etched in El Chivo’s visage, Susana’s perpetually terrified vulnerability, and Octavio’s physical transformation from baby-faced to gaunt as he realizes what he (and others) is capable of. Life afflicts physical scars – bruises, gunshot wounds, amputations. Similarly, the city shows its disfigurement – walls are loose and crumbling, rotten floorboards disintegrate underfoot. Even the film’s bold palette of colors appears faded, sun-bleached in the same deteriorated hues that so beautifully suffused last year’s Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999). Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and (somewhat over enthusiastically) hailed by the New York Times‘ Elvis Mitchell as “one of the first art films to come out of Mexico since Buñuel worked there,” Amores Perros seems to be the delegate-elect for a new Mexican cinema. And yet, an epic scope, ensemble cast and melodramatic sensibility alone do not make a masterpiece. Ultimately, though it demonstrates far more than a glimmer of potential talent, Amores Perros falls short of what it endeavors to be. Iñárritu makes the classic firsttimer mistake of striving for too much, attempting both depth and style and coming off slightly hackneyed and derivative. Several ill-advised intervals find Iñárritu galloping to catch up to his own structural complexities by inserting expository montage sequences that, clumsy and soundtrack-heavy, too closely resemble music videos. Attempts to interweave characters among the three segments seems forced, as the links tying
model is the weakest of the three, in that them together are indirect and meta-
we’re never allowed as close to these charac-
phorical – thus, there’s no satisfy-
ters, thus restraining their dimensions and
ing a-ha of recognition à la Pulp
our own sympathies. Yet the metaphor of the
Fiction as disparate parts are final-
trapped dog, whose tortured cries they can
ly revealed as a cohesive, cleverly
hear all around but who maddeningly continues
to elude them, is gravely apt. The people of Amores Perros are searching, attempting Her-
The segment with the scarred super-
culean efforts to achieve what seems just 24
around the corner. They are thwarted by a world that swiftly and unexpectedly asserts its force, like a bully pulling a gun, and instantly the rules are meaningless and nothingâ€™s fair. Itâ€™s a cynical message but one not totally without hope. As El Chivoâ€™s ascent from angel of death to gallant savior shows, reconciliation and redemption still seem possible. 25
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE QUEER AND THE DOG IN ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU’S AMORES PERROS (2000): A MASCULINITY AT WAR ORLA JULIETTE BORREYE
Abstract: The Mexican New Wave film Amores perros (2000) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu was an international commercial success and was highly acclaimed by critics. Even though it has been extensively studied, certain aspects of the film have been neglected, in particular the existence of a queer undercurrent. In this essay I argue that Amores perros offers a portrayal of masculinity as both a gender performance and a return to animal instinct. The latter is emphasized through the canine allegory which is constantly present in the film. Masculinity is shown more in terms of hypermasculinity as it is characterized by aggression, violence, rivalry, sexual promiscuity and demonstrations of pugnacity. Not only are men at war against each other, but they also appear to be at war with themselves and this is all the more evident in the context of queer masculinity. Indeed, men struggle to maintain their (hyper)masculine image, yet certain inconsistencies in some of the male characters’ behavior or appearance reveal their queerness and thus lack of compliance with the ideals of machismo. In short, this essay highlights the extent to which gender roles and in this particular case the machista role, imprison individuals and lead to a vicious circle of violence and death allegorized by the dog fighting in the film; alternative manifestations of masculinity must be repressed for survival and thus are often hidden behind an exaggerated version of mainstream masculinity. This repression however is just another symptom of a gender order in crisis.
This essay explores aspects of the portrayal of masculinity in the internationally successful debut feature film of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu: Amores perros (2000), a title translated into English as Love’s a Bitch. The film was both commercially successful and critically acclaimed: it received numerous awards at different festivals including Cannes, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Havana, Chicago, Sao Paulo and Edinburgh. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Non-English Language Film (D’Lugo 2003: 221) and for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes despite the censorship problems it had to face in Germany and the UK due to the dog fighting scenes (Smith 2003: 13). It also obtained a BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language and the Mexican Academy of Film’s Ariel awards in several categories (Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Editing), including the Golden Ariel (Wood 2006: 90-91). Amores perros is the first film in Iñárritu’s trilogy of death; it was followed by 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006).
The film is divided into three parts, each one deals with characters from completely different social backgrounds and all are linked by a tragic car accident in Mexico City which is the opening scene of the film. In this article, I only focus on the first episode of the film named ‘Octavio y Susana’ and in particular on the minor characters of El Jarocho and Mauricio. This episode concentrates on characters from the Mexican lower-class. Octavio and Ramiro are brothers and they live with their mother Doña Concha and Ramiro’s wife, Susana and their baby son, Rodrigo. Octavio is infatuated with Susana, he begins a love affair with her and plans to escapeto north26
ern city Ciudad Juárez with her and the baby. His interest in her appears to stem at least partly from his rivalry with his brother. Octavio uses their dog Cofi in illegal dog fights against the dogs of street bully El Jarocho in order to save money to leave the capital with his sister-in-law.
I argue that masculinity in this film is represented as both a gender performance and a return to animal instinct and that it is portrayed in an extremely negative light as men are compared to dogs and monsters who not only attempt to control and contain women, but are also constantly at war against one another and with themselves. Indeed, men are depicted as competitive, aggressive, violent, domineering, sexually promiscuous, unfaithful, corrupt and selfish. In other words, they are portrayed as hypermasculine or machistas to use a specifically Mexican concept. In this way, the film shows a gender order which is in crisis and in urgent need of change. Amores perros has been criticized for offering stereotypical portrayals of male and female characters, which seems unfair when the film is analysed in more depth. The two aspects that this article will deal with are the tension between performance and instinct in the male characters’ behavior and the queer undercurrent noticeable in certain characters, namely El Jarocho and Mauricio (the ‘manager’ of the dog fighting business). Both aspects appear to be symptoms of a gender order in crisis reflecting a national crisis.
Performance and Instinct in Amores perros
Post-structuralist philosopher and theorist Judith Butler who contributed a great deal to the fields of feminism and queer theory with her books Gender Trouble: Feminism and The Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993) amongst others, developed the theory of gender performativity. This theory maintains that gender is a performance, a masquerade and Butler thus argues that: ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (1990: 33). Butler not only finds gender roles to be unnatural, but she also explains the constructed status of heterosexuality, which is made to appear natural in order to reinforce and ensure its power as an institution: ‘The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy’ (1990: 41). In short, what Butler affirms is that there is no original heterosexuality or original masculine and feminine, it is all fictitious: ‘The notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate. Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original (…)’ (1990: 175). The concept of masquerade to which Butler refers to resonates with Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s historically and socially grounded analysis of Mexican society and identity in his acclaimed work El laberinto de la soledad (1950), as he also discusses the concept of ‘the mask’. These theories serve here as an illuminating template to better understand the portrayal of masculinity and in particular its representation as a cultural performance, which must be complied with in order to be socially integrated.
As already mentioned, masculinity in the Mexican context often equals machismo, which David Gilmore defines as ‘an extreme form of manly images and codes’, or in other words a type of hypermasculinity (1990: 16 cited Gutmann 1996: 25). Matthew Gutmann emphasizes that machismo is related to male sexual conquest, procreation, 27
bragging and the defiance of death (1996: 26). According to Paz, being a man in the Mexican context implies impenetrability and not displaying emotions (1950: 34). All these definitions help to grasp the masculine performance to which the male characters of Amores perros adhere in order to be socially recognised. Of course, they remain invisible citizens, as it is the lower-class which is concerned here, but they still need to be recognised within their social sphere by fulfilling certain gender and social expectations, which in this case imply demonstrations of pugnacity. The conventions of the masculine performance however have precipitated a return to nature, which is perhaps even more evident within the lower-class, as it is allegorised through the dog fights.
Indeed, the numerous dog fights which take place in the film are crucial as they serve to establish a comparison between hypermasculine and canine behavior. According to Geoffrey Kantaris: ‘The film uses dog-fighting as a displaced metaphor, an allegory even, for human violence, and indeed dog-fetishism substitute for impeded human relationships. (…) At an even more fundamental level, the dog metaphor functions to defetishise social relations for the spectator’ (2003: 186-187). The fights represent aggression, violence, impulsiveness, and rivalry. In other words, despite the fact that hypermasculinity is portrayed as performance, upholding Butler’s theories which maintain that gender is based on cultural requirements rather than natural ones, Iñárritu shows that in the Mexican context, the enactment of masculinity has led men to behave like dogs and the animal instinct has overtaken the human. This idea has precedents in Mexican discourses on identity. In this regard, it is interesting that the Cannes press kit of the film was described as a ‘letter-box format and boasted gorgeously distorted images of the actors, both human and animal, merging and disintegrating into blurred go-faster stripes’ (Smith 2003: 83). This image recalls the famous mural by Diego Rivera, Carnaval de la vida mexicana (1936), displayed in El Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Two parts of the mural, namely ‘La dictadura’ and ‘México folklórico y túristico’, also feature humanised animals or humans animalised. Not only does the first dog fight scene in which Octavio and El Jarocho’s dogs compete establish a comparison between (hyper)masculinity and canine behaviour due to the noteworthy editing (as the previous scene featured Ramiro hitting Octavio in the shower),1 but it also stresses (hyper)masculinity as performance in an alternative way. Indeed, the dog fights take place in a pit and are arranged so that the dogs have no choice but to fight: these fights function as entertainment for lower-class Mexican men. In other words, the dog fights also constitute a type of performance and are in fact a ‘cultural’ event. In this sense they echo the concept of (hyper)masculinity as performance and cultural in addition to displaying the animalistic side of (hyper) masculinity. The dog fights serve as an allegory of (hyper)masculine performance in the Mexican context, where men are expected to behave in certain ways competing against each other and enclosed in restricted gender roles just as the dogs are enclosed in a restricted space with no choice but to fight to death. Thus, not only is (hyper)masculinity aligned with canine behaviour in the sense that it appears to return to nature, but dog fighting as performance alludes to the destructive nature of restrictive gender roles. The director thus establishes a connection between teaching a dog to fight and teaching a man to be a man (especially within the Mexican context in which manliness is characterized by rivalry and pugnacity), further blurring the lines between the natural and the cultural.
Magaly León goes as far as to link this portrayal of machismo to a generalised ‘guerra civil subterránea’ (underground civil war) (2000: 16 cited Schaefer 2003: 92). What is meant by this ‘underground civil war’ is that the country lacks consistently applied laws and what prevails is thus the ‘law of the jungle’. Indeed, all of the male characters are depicted as being extremely individualistic. This phenomenon is strongly linked to machismo, as it is symptomatic of the masculine mentality of competition and self-centeredness. Brothers Octavio and Ramiro are at war as are Octavio 28
and El Jarocho. The dog fighting allegory stands specifically for this male war. Both are part of the underground, never officially declared, and thus lacking clearly defined rules. The fact that the dog fights end with the death of one of the animals is also significant, as death is also part of the men’s war here. This emphasises the fact that the ‘guerra civil subterránea’ has no limits, a notion well illustrated by the scene in which El Jarocho shoots Cofi and Octavio responds by stabbing El Jarocho in the stomach.
It is also interesting when comparing the dog fights to the male war to examine the positions of the characters in the film. During the fights, the dogs stand facing each other, ready to attack. This positioning recurs several times in the film between the different male protagonists and of course recalls any war with the enemies facing each other.2 One illustration of this positioning occurs in the scene where El Jarocho decides to let his dog, Pancho, kill all of El Chivo’s stray dogs (El Chivo is a character from the third episode of the film). El Chivo produces a knife and stands to face El Jarocho, who then changes his mind and retreats. This scene is also interesting since it precedes the scene in which El Jarocho first threatens Octavio, and thus emphasises the extent to which El Jarocho’s victims are carefully chosen. The positioning of rivals facing each other also occurs many times between Ramiro and Octavio, for example when they eat opposite each other rather than next to each other. The oppressive conventions of masculinity as represented in Amores perros and the tension between fulfilling a cultural performance and a precipitated return to animal instinct leads men to be at war against one another. The following section emphasises how these same men are not only at war against other men but also with themselves. Although this is true of all male characters in the film, it is more evident in the context of a repressed queerness noticeable in some characters.
The Queer Undercurrent in Amores perros Heterosexuality and the heterosexual lifestyle are cornerstones of what defines machismo even though some theorists argue that what counts when evaluating machismo is the sexual role performed by the individual and whether he is active or passive. In this regard, Prieur explains that: ‘The Spanish word heterosexual is rarely used, so many do not have an opinion of what it means, but some think that being heterosexual is being a man, or being normal – and a man is a man, or is normal, as long as he looks like a man and sticks to the active role, regardless of whether he has sex with women or men’ (1996: 87). Despite this, on a practical level, most of the time machismo excludes homosexuality (whether active or passive) as a possibility and therefore any queerness (in gender or sexual performance) must be hidden. This of course is due to the fact that gender definitions are so restrictive. El Jarocho provides us with an illustration of this, as he attempts to conceal his sexuality behind an extremely hyper-masculine performance and a feminisation of other men.
El Jarocho is the street bully and he is feared by most men in the neighbourhood. He has a group of followers, his henchmen and has been the victor at the dog fights for some time winning ten fights in a row. He appears very machista, involved in dog fights, leading a group of aggressive bullies and constantly attempting to inspire fear in others, as for example when he threatens Octavio after Cofi has killed his dog, Pancho, in the street (an incident provoked by El Jarocho himself): El Jarocho: Bring Pancho out of the car ! Look what’s left of him because of your dog. This animal was worth at least 20,000 pesos, did you know that? Octavio: Well you should dissect it man, it would look good in your living room. El Jarocho: Don’t try to be smart with me stupid kid. You have two options, either you pay me for this or you pay me, man. Octavio: Yeah and why the hell would I pay you for this ? El Jarocho: Are you going to be a smartass? Octavio: No, no but hey why did you send Pancho after him ? El Jarocho: Look man I will forgive you if you give me your dog in exchange Octavio: You must be kidding! El Jarocho: Well then start saving up, because I am going to charge you for this. Jorge (Octavio’s friend): Why don’t you charge Ramiro instead and see if he is so nice. Or are you scared he might beat you up again? El Jarocho: I am not scared asshole. And I won’t let you get away with this, do you understand Octavio? Let’s go.
What makes El Jarocho appear hypermasculine in this scene is the fact that he places himself in a position of superiority. First he is the leader of his group of henchmen which is evident when he orders his ‘boys’ to bring the dog’s body to him (‘¡Bajen al Pancho!’), secondly he is the driver of the car and is thus perceived as the one who controls (although this control is often only illusionary). As well as that, he puts himself in a position of superiority with Octavio by talking down to him and calling him names such as ‘pinche escuincle’ (stupid kid). It is interesting to note that El Jarocho is careful about who he threatens and in what situation, ensuring that he is always in a privileged position. In this particular case, he has his friends to back him up and Octavio and Jorge at this point in the film do not appear dangerous, but rather innocent and helpless.3 As Jorge suggests, El Jarocho would not threaten Ramiro in such a way, were his friends not present to defend him.
As soon as El Jarocho sees Octavio at the dog fights, he makes a comment comparing Octavio to a little girl or a sissy, in order to belittle him and thus reaffirm his own sense of masculinity and superiority. El Jarocho addresses Mauricio, referring to Octavio, saying: ‘Qué, ¿Desde cuando le entras con niñitas?’ (Since when do you play with sissies?) Then, to Octavio, he says: ‘Estoy hablando con el dueño del circo reinito’ (I am talking with the owner of the circus little king) and winks at Octavio. The use of the diminutive in ‘reinito’, when addressing Octavio is intended to subordinate him, as is the refusal to pay attention to him. By using the words ‘niñitas’ and ‘reinito’ with the diminutives, El Jarocho feminises Octavio (niñitas means little girls but could be translated here as sissies) and reduces him to ‘something less than 30
a man’, that is, to a homosexual man (and even a homosexual man in the passive position as he feminises Octavio).4 In this way, he can feel more “manly” and avoid being perceived as gay, or at least that is his intention. At the final dog fight, El Jarocho addresses Octavio as ‘muñequita’ after shooting Cofi: ‘Se me fue un tiro muñequita.’ (The shot just went off dolly.) He adds: ‘¡No anden de chillones niñitas!’ (Don’t go off crying sissies!) By using terms such as ‘muñequita’, ‘niñitas’ and ‘chillones’, he repudiates the feminine and that which is associated with it traditionally (that is, tears) and thus believes that in this way he distances himself from it.
El Jarocho thus displays a misogynistic and homophobic attitude, which according to Michael Kimmel, may reveal a fear of being uncovered as not male enough: ‘Homophobia is more than the irrational fear of gay men, more than the fear that we may be perceived as gay… Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men’ (1994: 131). Prieur refers to this power struggle in her study of homosexuality in Mexico, when she says: ‘My interpretation would be that men display their masculinity by putting their fellows in feminine or subordinate positions’ (1996: 96). She makes use of Eduardo Archetti’s work to support this position: ‘Archetti interprets this as a ritual where men’s identity is constructed by underscoring the difference between being a man and being a homosexual, where being a man stands for power, strength, independence and authority. Reducing the other to less than a man, to a homosexual, implies an enhancement of one’s own masculinity, while showing that the other is unable to defend his masculine identity’ (Prieur 1996: 96). The relationship between homophobia and the repudiation of the feminine is also noted by Kimmel (1994: 126-127). This strategy has ironic results as it causes El Jarocho to appear simultaneously machista and queer. Indeed, by constantly subordinating or feminising other men around him he draws further attention to his own ‘masculinity’ and provokes further questioning about it instead of reaffirming it.
The ambiguity surrounding El Jarocho’s masculinity and sexuality in comparison to that of Octavio or Ramiro is reinforced by the fact that he is never seen with a woman5 and he never physically fights another man.6 Instead he uses his dogs to reaffirm his masculinity as well as his gun when he shoots Cofi, illustrating the fact that he cannot bear to lose against Octavio (as it clearly undermines his sense of masculinity and its approval by others). The gun, with its obvious phallic connotations, thus acts as a sort of substitute masculinity for El Jarocho. Interestingly, after El Jarocho has shot Cofi, Octavio returns and stabs him saying: ‘¡Por puto!’ (This is for being an asshole!) This ironic choice of phrase, ‘puto’ in Mexico meaning faggot but also used as ‘asshole’, suggests that El Jarocho’s performance has been uncovered. It is also noteworthy that Octavio uses a knife as a weapon against El Jarocho, as the term ‘puñal’ (dagger), is also used in Mexico to refer pejoratively to a gay man.
During his commentary on the film, Iñárritu confirms that the ambiguity surrounding El Jarocho’s character, and in particular his sexuality, is intentional. His bleached blond hair, a common look in gay male communities, leads to interrogation of his sexual orientation as do his numerous ear-rings. The tattoos, in contrast, suggest pugnacity. Therefore it seems that El Jarocho adopts extremely machista behaviour in order to hide a gender and sexual inadequacy of his own or in order to pass as straight. In addition, as Kantaris emphasises in his article on gender and violence (2004: unpaginated), street violence can in some cases be used as a masquerade for one’s sexuality. In short, El Jarocho’s character demonstrates Butler’s theory of 31
gender performativity, and even the ways in which gender performance can be used to pass as, a crucial concept in queer theory.7 Indeed, Ramiro, Octavio and El Jarocho all appear as though they are constantly trying to prove their masculinity. According to Judith Hicks Stiehm, masculinity, unlike femininity, needs to be reaffirmed and thus appears to be more of a performance than its counterpart:
“Biology is certainly not destiny, but it remains true that women can give birth to and nurse the young, while men cannot. In contrast, there is nothing men can do that women cannot. Because men do not have a unique capacity by which to define themselves, they tend to define themselves by oppositeness - specifically, as being the opposite to women. (…) Again, because their special role is only socially defined, men need to assert and protect it. This is because their masculinity is vulnerable, more vulnerable than women’s femininity” (2000: 224).
Mauricio is another questionable character in terms of gender and sexuality. First of all, with regard to his physical appearance, his numerous gold chains, bracelets and rings give him a kitschy look, particularly since he is a lower-class citizen.8 This particular look and choice of fashion, although related to social class, is also associated with camp, a term which Susan Sontag links to homosexual cultures: “The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. (…) So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard -- and the most articulate audience -- of Camp’ (1964: unpaginated).
As Sontag clarifies, ‘camp’ is first and foremost a mode of aestheticism, she associates it with a certain bad taste, but one which is liberating and does not take itself seriously: “The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste” (1964). Camp is part of Mauricio’s looks, but also of his actions, when for instance he licks his plate after having finished his food and does this in front of Octavio and Jorge. In fact, this particular action is reflected somehow in the following quotation by Sontag: ‘The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted. The dandy held a perfumed handkerchief to his nostrils and was liable to swoon; the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves’ (1964: unpaginated).
In short, Mauricio’s style not only testifies his social class, but also links him to homosexuality. Other significant details reinforce his queerness such as the scene in which he hands money to El Jarocho who gives him a tap on the buttocks. This gesture calls into question both characters’ sexuality. Later, as Mauricio agrees to commence a business arrangement with Octavio and his fighting dog, he offers Octavio money which he has taken from his underpants, a gesture with obvious sexual connotations and which again denotes a camp style. Mauricio does not attempt to reaffirm his masculinity constantly in the same way as El Jarocho does, but his dog-fighting business contributes greatly to his manly image and approval by others. In other words, his business serves as his passing device as it is illegal, dangerous and ruthless, part of the underground economy and therefore macho. Besides, the fact that he has 32
several men working for him to whom he gives orders contributes to his masculine image.
In short, both El Jarocho and Mauricio display a machista image in order to pass as heterosexual males while often employing other devices to emphasise their (hyper) masculinity (dogs, business, subordinates, guns). The idea of passing is an important concept within queer politics since it supports the notion that gender is merely a performance and that one can ‘be’ something and pass as something else.9 However, it is the inconsistencies in El Jarocho and Mauricio’s appearances and performances that betray them. In other words, these characters make the performance of (hyper) masculinity all the more evident, since they appear to use performance as a disguise. However, their repressed queerness also suggests the restrictiveness of the current gender order in Mexico as it is shown in the film. In this way, it alludes to a crisis in the gender order and by extension a national crisis. The canine allegory and in particular the dog fights which symbolise the underground war taking place in Mexico City is another aspect of the film which serves to suggest this crisis in the gender order and in particular in what defines masculinity.
In conclusion, Amores perros presents us with a violent masculinity pulled between a restrictive gender performance and a savage return to nature and the law of the jungle. Not only are men at war against each other including against their own brothers, but they also appear to struggle with themselves and their own identities. This seems to be partly due to such a restrictive gender order and the repression of homosexuality and queerness is just one symptom of this current crisis in Mexico.
Although many critics have perceived Amores perros as reactionary with regards to gender, another perspective, such as the one suggested here, could classify Amores perros as much more progressive in that it constitutes an urgent call for change in society, change which it appears, need not only come from political institutions but also from individuals and particularly male individuals as they are the ones who hold most power and perpetrate most violence as it is shown in the film. The fact that each episode focuses on male characters at different stages of their lives highlights the fact that they are somehow at the centre of this national crisis represented metaphorically through the car crash. So as Schaefer says: ‘Even if we don’t know what we are waiting for, we must break our addiction to sleep and let the dogs out, for the frightening visions of sleep cannot hold a candle to the potential horrors of our waking hours’ (2003: 173). To the expression ‘Let the dogs out’ one should add ‘Let masculinity out’, or in more general terms ‘Let gender out’, that is free society from its restrictive gender roles, which incarcerate individuals and society and prevent any real progress.
Where Have All the Men Gone? Amores Perros is structured into three episodes about urban life from the perspectives of three different social classes: a working class family, a middle-class couple, & a hit man who lives in absolute squalor (although he secretly amasses the money from his hits & had been a professor). The three storylines come together through a violent traffic accident at the beginning of the film, the only real point of intersection & interaction between the classes.
In the film, the men fail to provide for their families, use violence to solve problems inappropriately, are ineffectual, act immaturely, & run away from their problems. In the three storylines, men from all walks of life are equally unable to act responsibly. In the first story, Octavio tries to seduce his brother Ramiroâ€™s young wife Susana. Neither brother has a steady job that can adequately support a family. Octavio makes money by entering the family dog in the dogfights; the brother works as a cashier in a grocery store but supplements his income by robbing convenience stores. Both brothers live with their mother, who presumably also works to support their modest household. Susana is still in high school & is unable to 34
help support the family financially. Octavio tries to seduce Susana by entrusting her with his profits from the dogfights & thus compete with the income the brother provides her through his crimes. The brothers’ competitiveness is manifested through violence: Ramiro beats Octavio in the shower; Octavio arranges for some thugs to beat up his brother. At the same time as the beating, Octavio has sex with Susana so that he can symbolically win over his brother in sexual prowess as well as physical strength. Octavio’s victory over his brother is transitory, however. In the end, Susana chooses her husband, & takes Octavio’s money as they run away.
In the second storyline, Daniel, a magazine executive, leaves his wife & two daughters for Valeria, a Spanish model. As they attempt to construct a new life together in an upscale apartment, she is involved in the traffic accident that unites the three storylines & is left in a wheelchair as her leg heals. This causes a crisis for the woman since she is unable to find work because of the scarring left by the accident. The relationship begins to dissolve & Daniel begins to drift away.
From the beginning, he is portrayed as an ineffectual man who cannot appropriately solve his problems. The first time we see him, he is driving with his wife & daughters. As the daughters are playing & the mother is talking, he is daydreaming about the model on a billboard in the street. He arranges for a TV show to suggest that Valeria is romantically involved with a TV actor. This is a cowardly way to solve his problems -it suggests that he is not involved with Valeria, it provides cover for her; & it allows the actor (who is portrayed in a way that suggests he is gay) to present himself as heterosexual. Daniel walks out on his family without a formal confrontation. As his relationship with the model goes sour, he begins to make crank phone calls to his family in order to escape his present situation by fantasizing about the past. In the story’s climax, medical complications cause Valeria to lose her leg. Daniel is left with a ruined model in a ruined apartment that faces the empty billboard that formerly featured her.
The third story features El Chivo, a former university professor who became involved with the urban guerrilla movement in the late 1960s. His activities led to his imprisonment & the loss of his family whom he abandoned to participate in the revolution. His has wife told his daughter, Maru, that he had died & remarried another man. After being released from prison, he began working as a hit man for a corrupt police officer. The officer contacts the clients, El Chivo assassinates the targets, & they split the money. El Chivo lives in an abandoned warehouse in total squalor along with a group of stray dogs. He roams the streets with a cart & his dogs, appearing to be a homeless peddler, while planning his hits. In the film, he learns that his ex-wife has died. He attends the funeral, where he sees his daughter from afar. This causes him to begin to regret the way he has lived his life. In the climax scene, his new dog (which is in fact Octavio’s former dog) slaughters all the other dogs while El Chivo is out. This act of random violence causes him to change his life drastically. After refusing to kill his next target, who he leaves tied to the person who ordered the hit (who turns out to be the target’s brother), El Chivo leaves all his money in his daughter’s apartment, with a phone message telling her who he is, & subsequently abandons the city with his dog. This is the only arguably positive end in the whole film. Although El Chivo fails to reunite with his daughter, he decides to abandon his life of crime & attempt to become a better person. This is manifested in his alteration of his appearance -he washes, shaves, & changes clothes. He is a new man. Moreover, he begins to wear glasses again -that is, he now literally sees things clearly. As he leaves the money for his daughter, he leaves a photo of his new self atop the photo of the girl’s adopted father, as if by finally providing financially for his daughter & revealing 35
his existence, he can become her true father. We do not see the daughter’s reaction, but it can be assumed that this will be quite a shock to her & her relationship to El Chivo will not be one of immediate trust & love. After selling a stolen car, El Chivo leaves the city. Whether this is one last crime or an indication of his continued moral ambivalence is unclear.
As these three examples show, there are no male characters who fulfil social expectations of masculinity. A “real” man would be a good father & provider, would work, would act with courage, & would not be inappropriately violent. In this film, none of the men prove to be good fathers & providers. The two brothers in the first story are trying to control Susana, but neither of them pays much attention to her child & her unborn baby. Neither of them is an adequate provider since their income is based on crime & illegal dogfights. They are not offering Susana a secure life. No one in the film has steady & meaningful employment.
None of the men are portrayed as being courageous since they hide behind real & symbolic masks from their problems –Ramiro wears a mask to rob stores; Octavio contracts hit men to batter his brother; Daniel runs out on his family; El Chivo camouflages himself as a homeless man.
All the men in Amores Perros use violence inappropriately. Ramiro routinely beats his wife. The two brothers try to alleviate their problems & competition through the use 36
of violence against each other; El Chivo is contracted to kill someone’s half-brother. The film suggests that the worst form of violence happens between brothers. Daniel becomes violent with his girlfriend when they fight, which is his way to deal with his ineffectualness. Through his former guerrilla activities, El Chivo represents ineffectual political violence; as a hit man contracted through a corrupt cop, he becomes part of a complex form of state violence.
The political situation in Mexico allows him to murder people with sponsorship from a cop whose job is to supposedly protect the people. El Chivo’s killings are the total opposite of his previous revolutionary ideals, yet produce the same effect of violence & disorder.
The men engage in ultra-masculine behaviour to alleviate fears about their masculinity. Octavio tries throughout the film to act macho, while in fact he is unable to control any situation. In the first story, Octavio must face two opponents, his brother & Jarocho, another competitor at the dogfights. He does not confront his brother directly & their only face to face interaction occurs when Ramiro beats him in the shower. With Jarocho, first he uses his brother’s reputation to protect himself, then uses the the dogfight arena to escape Jarocho’s wrath. Eventually Jarocho arranges for a private dogfight where he shoots Octavio’s dog.
Octavio stabs Jarocho & quickly runs away. His only true confrontation leads to his cowardly escape & a chase that produces a traffic accident. Octavio not only loses his dog, he also loses his money, his best friend dies in the car, & the accident ends up hurting the model as well. At the end, Octavio is hobbling on crutches & unsuccessfully trying to convince Susana to run away with him. She refuses, even though Ramiro has died in a robbery & she is now destitute. She tells Octavio that she would rather be alone than be with him. In the second story, when Daniel & Valeria fight, he tries to adopt a masculine attitude by becoming violent. This only causes more trouble & contributes to the medical complication that leads to the amputation of Valeria’s leg. Like Octavio, Daniel is unable to control the situation around him & is frustrated because his life fails to match his fantasies. El Chivo attempts to constitute himself as a hypermasculine instrument of violence, to alleviate his failure as a husband, father, professor, & guerrilla. In his hit-man persona he is disorderly, filthy, & unstable.
His clients are afraid of him, as are his victims, because of his appearance. All men in the film are unsuccessfully attempting to hide their deficient masculinity by exaggerating their behaviour & presenting themselves as what they think a man should be. This just shows how unfit they are as men.
The masculinity constructed in Amores Perros is unsustainable & negative. The male characters’ masculinity is unsustainable because it only brings forth destruction in their lives. They are unable to appropriately cope with their particular realities & try to find easy answers to complex problems. Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson: Hispanet
Monstrous Masculine Forum for InterAmerican Research Journal 2008 Amores Perros is a tense multiperspective vision of sex, violence & redemption in a hostile Mexico City that allows for very few light -hearted moments. The film is set entirely within Mexico City & concentrates on the social injustices & hardships of this specific city. The film tells three separate stories of individual characters -the adolescent Octavio, the middle-aged Daniel, & the ageing Chivo- & then connects the lives of these characters through a central car-crash that is shown from various angles & diverse viewpoints throughout the film. Guillermo Arriaga had originally intended his work to tell the life of one man at different ages, however, the film chooses to use three characters to represent youth, middle-age, & later-life, who differ not only in age but also in economic circumstances & social standing.
This decision perhaps allowed for a greater exploration of the vast divisions in Mexican society.
The first of these stories, Octavio y Susana, tells of a frantic affair between Octavio & his brother’s young wife Susana. Octavio’s older brother, Ramiro, is violent, abusive, & unfaithful to schoolgirl Susana. The young Octavio, believing Susana to be in love with him, enters his dog into the brutal underworld of illegal dogfighting in order to raise enough money for the young lovers to flee Mexico City. In the end, Ramiro is killed in a bank heist & Susana refuses to leave with Octavio, who, as a result of the film’s central car crash, is shown to have suffered multiple debilitating injuries.
Octavio is played by Gael García Bernal, an actor who through his work in later films has become somewhat symbolic of young Mexican masculinity in both Mexico & internationally. In Amores Perros, Octavio is introduced to the audience as he tells a sexist joke at the dinner table to impress Susana. The two are closer in age than are Susana & her husband & appear to have an easy relationship. At first Octavio is likeable & even heroic in his determination to rescue the pregnant Susana & her infant child from 38
his brotherâ€™s tyranny. However, it becomes apparent that his desire for Susana is twinned only with his hatred of Ramiro & thus his motives in initiating their affair become blurred. Although Susana does have an affair with Octavio, at no point does she seem solidly convinced that they should flee together.
Their finances are greatly improved through the efforts of Octavio & his fighter-dog Cofi. Also during this time, Octavio has arranged, through his new acquaintances, for his brother Ramiro to be savagely beaten. Blinded by his new-found wealth & power, Octavio underestimates the encroaching brutality of the dog-fighting underworld where his jealous enemy Jarocho stabs Cofi mid-fight with his switch-blade. The fury with which he responds results in Jarocho receiving the same harsh treatment, only this time it is Octavio who holds the knife. The car chase & inevitably horrific collision, that directly follows as a consequence of the stabbing, is the central narrative event used to connect the three stories of Amores Perros. Eventually, Octavio can be held accountable for the death of his best friend Jorge, who was travelling with him, &, to a lesser extent, for the death of Ramiro who fled his home with his young family as a result of the organised beating.
Also, due to the position of the car crash as the linking narrative event, Octavio holds the blame for model Valeria’s injuries that the film’s second story, Daniel y Valeria, reveals will ruin her career & her body leaving her wheelchair bound.
Early in the film, Octavio’s dog engages in his first provoked fight & rapidly the scene cuts to a shot of a television screen. A black & white film shows a hunched figure in a bell tower recognisable as a screen version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956), in which Quasimodo is played by Mexican born Anthony Quinn. The camera draws back to reveal Octavio’s bedroom &, as Susana enters, a second clip of the hunchback is shown & then again interrupted by cutting back to the bedroom where Susana, in thanking Octavio for defending her against her husband, fails to hide her bleeding ear. Not only is the crucifix framed above her head but also she is positioned in the background, framed by Octavio’s legs in the foreground. Here, Susana is positioned at the level of Octavio’s crotch. The camera moves directly from monster in tower (Quasimodo), to semi-virginal mother (Susana) to Octavio’s genital area & thus a site of male sexuality. Later, when Susana finally allows herself to be seduced, Octavio reaches for her exposed thigh first before sliding his hand under her skirt.
Adolescence is a period of abjection where the transition from childhood to adulthood, similar to Quasimodo’s body shape, disturbs identity and borders, and forces the adolescent into an inbetween category. In Amores Perros Octavio is linked to Quasimodo as a symbol of the monstrous. For Octavio, however, the physical markers of adolescence are not as prominent as are the psychological conflicts of teenage angst. Gael García Bernal, playing Octavio, is presented physically as far more ‘Beauty’ than he is ‘Beast’. Yet, it is his behaviour and his desire that becomes beastly, while his body remains beautiful. In this way he becomes Quasimodo’s reciprocal image. Octavio’s abject state is psychological, hovering between boyishness and adult masculinity, whereas Quasimodo’s abject state is due to his bodily form and the isolation he suffers as a result.
Octavio never verbally places Susana in the realm of the immortal or the sacred, but the mise-en-scene & costume choices point to her inclusion in the long history of Marian imagery in Mexico. She is seen most often in her school uniform, blue in colour, & is framed beneath a crucifix on more than one occasion &, indeed, her infant child may connect her even more closely to the Virgin. Sergio de La Mora explains that “in Mexican popular culture, religious imagery is frequently used as the repository of “romantic” male fantasies about women’s sexuality, a figure who is both virgin & whore. The fantasy woman is a contradictory & unattainable revered object of erotic desire who is paradoxically both pure & corrupt, sacred & secular. “
Susana, although not in any way a prostitute, can indeed be categorised in a similar way. She is a young married mother who lives with her husband’s family & is still attending school. Nevertheless, she falls prey to the two-sided masculine construction of Mexican womanhood. Her appearance of almost virginal innocence, read in this context, can only go so far until the point where she becomes a catalyst in the struggle between brothers Octavio & Ramiro. It is as if her defencelessness somehow 40
appears to invite her corruption. In Amores Perros, Susana’s thighs are consistently held under the camera’s gaze. Costume selections ensure that she wears clothing throughout that reveals her upper legs to the audience, be it her school skirt, or the T-shirt she sleeps in.
What becomes uncertain is whether the desire women arouse in the adolescent is born out of an urge to protect their innocence, or more alarmingly, an urge to possess them. Without suggesting that Octavio himself is a rapist, it can be said that the urgency with which he pursues Susana, one time grabbing her forcefully from behind in the corridor after calling her from his brother’s marital bed, another time pushing her against his bedroom window to steal a kiss, does indeed suggest an aggressiveness in pursuit of his goal. it is Octavio who holds the knife, and he uses it to stab Jarocho, his nemesis, in an attempt to assert his masculinity. In this set of power relations, the knife that penetrates can be read as the phallus and the act of stabbing as an alternative violation of the flesh. As Octavio charges at Jarocho, it is evident that he is wearing a Scream T-shirt depicting the white elongated and distorted face of the killers mask, a borrowed simulation of Munch’s famous painting of anguish. The T-shirt itself becomes a visual clue pointing to the bloodshed that is to come and the role Octavio is to play in that violence as he enters the last arranged fight against Jarocho’s dog. Octavio develops a savage thirst for blood when he seeks out revenge on both his brother Ramiro and his enemy Jarocho. As a consequence of Octavio’s animalistic behaviour death and destruction cling to him. The film’s car-chase, out-of control and dangerous, is a visual projection of Octavio’s mental state. Sarah-May O’Sullivan: 2008 http://www.interamerica.de/volume-1-1/osullivan/ 41
â€œmais l'important, c'est pas l
la chute, c'est l'atterrissage"
"When a young Arab named Makome died in Paris, the victim of police brutality, I asked myself,
'How does one get into this vicious circle of hatred where the young insult the cops who insult the young,'" recalls writer/director
"You can be sure that there's a bad ending each time," he Mathieu Kassovitz.
since it's the cops who are armed, they're the ones liable to push things too far." continues
Mathieu Kassovitz 47
Paul Emersonn: Behind the Scenes La Haine One of the brightest stars to emerge in French cinema this decade, Kassovitz has, at the age of twenty-eight, already made his mark as both a writer/ director & actor. "I wanted to make a provocative film," Kassovitz says of La Haine which, he continues, "is definitely a statement against the cops. I clearly wanted people to see it that way, even if I show some good guys among the cops and some dirty bastards among the youth." Vincent Cassell, who plays Vinz, met Kassovitz seven years ago during the "Royal Himalayan Mountain Bike Passion Raid." The actor muses, "Mathieu and I have the same bike and the same passion for Tibet." They also share a passion for the experience of having worked together during the filming of La Haine. "It was my first time working with Mathieu and my relationship with him, as well as my relationship with (co-stars) Said and Hubert, was close, warm, intense and enriching. It was an unforgettable experience." For Said Taghmaoui, who plays Said in the film, it was the camaraderie during production that resonates. "This movie is a result of teamwork," the actor says. "It's important to work in perfect harmony with the director in order to understand what he expects from you. You fall in love with someone when you work with him and like what he does," Taghmaoui continues, "and that's how I feel about Mathieu and this movie. Even today, I still feel affected by the whole thing." Hubert Kounde, who plays Hubert in the film, met Kassovitz during the casting of the director's first film, Metisse. He explains that, while there are certain similarities between himself and his character, "Even
though the character is named 'Hubert,' he isn't me. In spite of what you may think, this is not a custom-made part." Kounde's performance, however, could well be described as custom-made. As one of the film's three main characters, Hubert is a boxer who is trying to make his way out of the hood. "Out of the three," Kounde notes, "he's the one with the highest moral sense. He's also the most introverted and the least communicative of the three. In a sense, Vinz, Hubert and Said are different parts of the same person. If you put their personalities together, you have one extraordinary guy." The experience of filming in the "cite" (the French term for what Americans refer to as the "hood") was powerful for the entire cast and crew. Kassovitz explains, "We shot La 48
Haine about twenty miles from Paris, on the outskirts of the city, in a housing project. Like in any other project, about 80% of the population and all of the youth have nothing to do. The kids don't go to school anymore. They hang around outside, smoking joints, and their only 'work' is usually small-time drug deals. And it's not even that it's so oppressive physically -- there are parks, soccer fields, trees. It's just that the people have no ambition, no direction, no goals and, finally, no hope." Vincent Cassell concurs with Kassovitz. "There is no program in these ghettos that offers a better education. On the contrary, authorities reject them. I think that as long as a given country, group or individual refuses to take responsibility for the mistakes they have made, things can only
degenerate. Isn't each generation responsible for itself?" Hubert Kounde recalls that, despite the harsh circumstances of filming in the housing project, things were not nearly as difficult as initially thought. "We thought it'd be much harder, but everything went just fine. We even made some good friends there. Of course, our experience was made better because Matthieu asked some of the people living in the â€œciteâ€? to be in the movie. Not only did it ease potential tensions, but it allowed reality to enter the world of fiction." This blending of reality and fiction was at the core of writer/director Kassovitz's decision to film in black and white. "To me, the only way to remind the audience that 49
they are not watching a comedy or a sentimental drama is to make a movie in black and white. It feels more real." And it was also the reality of life in the projects during the filming of this piece of fiction that proved an inescapable factor during production. "The people who live there look at you with pain in their eyes," recalls Said Taghmaoui, "and the worst part is when you go away, while they have to stay
behind. It's very hard. The reality of the 'cite' is so strong," the actor continues, "that it's hard to look it in the face and, most of the time, people prefer to just close their eyes. Our ghettos are very interesting places where races and cultures mix and are a source of life. La Haine is not just a film about brutality, it's a major lesson in friendship. If this movie helps people become aware of that, it's a really big step." Hubert Kounde hopes that La Haine will help
increase people's awareness of the problems in the ghetto. "We tried to analyze how hate is formed in those ghettos and to put it on film. We're not trying to 'sell' anything and I'm not sure what the social implications of this film will be. I do know that movies like La Haine are necessary, really necessary. And I also know that if you don't try, you don't get anything. Change doesn't happen without awareness." For writer/director Kassovitz, La Haine could well label him a 'spokesman' for
the French ghetto youth. This is, however, a goal to which he does not aspire. "You're a spokesman if you decide to be one," Kassovitz explains. "I definitely have things to say about police brutality and slip-ups. There are some events, some things that have happened in our city that I find really strange. The vision in La Haine is definitely my vision, but it's not the only one, and it's not necessarily the right one." 51
York film notes on La Haine By Roy Stafford
I smoke, I snort. I've kill
led and robbed. I'm a man
The Tender Trio
Putting the gang to rights City of God stars 106 teenagers and sharply evokes Rio's drugdriven violence. With the surprise Cannes hit about to open here, its director talks about why he made it and why he has spurned Hollywood's advances
City of God is powerful because it tells a story rarely told before, a story that Brazilians have rarely wanted to listen to before, of how huge areas of the country's cities have fallen into the control of armed drug gangs. The situation in Rio de Janeiro is like a war, with teenagers involved in daily shootouts and deaths. But despite being set 25 years ago, the film feels depressingly up-to-date. This year, drugs-related urban violence became the political issue in Rio. City of God appeared like a response to this heightened climate of fear: It was a statement of despair and a call to arms. Whereas a small number of Brazilian films have tackled urban poverty, none has done so with the panache of City of God, which is fast-paced, entertaining and smart. Because of the violent subject matter, sharp directing style and lively pop soundtrack, Meirelles has been hailed as Latin America's Martin Scorsese. In City of God he creates a new, brilliantly slick aesthetic for Brazil's crime-ridden peripheries as he weaves the story of a group of teenagers through the Sixties and Seventies. Almost all of the actors -106 of them are from a drama group for poor youths. Coordinated by Kรกtia Lund, the codirector, they put in chillingly convincing performances. The success of City of God has been linked to other changes in Brazil, such as the election in October of the country's first ever socialist president, Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva. Both events show a desire to look at social problems in a different way. 'A decade ago no one talked about these issues,' says Lund. 'There was no study of the causes of racism and violence, no questioning of society. Now there is a search to understand. People realise that the police on their own cannot solve the violence.' Cidade de Deus (City of God) is the name of a Sixties housing development in Rio de Janeiro that the authorities built as far as possible from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Disregarded by the state, Cidade de Deus turned into a favela - the name given to the city's poor, unplanned brick shantytowns. When
the cocaine trade started to emerge in the Seventies, favelas became the drug gangs' hide-outs. Quickly, the gangs became heavily armed and began using violence to control their areas. The situation has worsened. Rio's favelas, which house 10 per cent of the city's population, are police no-go areas, a state within the state ruled by teenagers brandishing heavy armoury. Traffickers are referred to here as the 'parallel power' without exaggeration. As well as their own fiefdoms, the gangs sometimes flex their muscles further afield. A few months ago schools and businesses throughout Rio, a city of 14 million people, closed down on the orders of the drugs bosses, some sending messages from inside their prison cells via mobile phones. 'I made this film for the Brazilian middle class,' says Meirelles, 47. 'It 92
was an opportunity for me to find out more about my country. We abandoned this part of society and now we are reaping the consequences.' Meirelles cut his teeth making TV ads - Brazil's advertising industry is considered one of the most sophisticated in the world and its influence is visible in City of God. 'Advertising taught me how to communicate my message,' he says. 'As an ad director I had technical resources not available to TV directors, which is the usual way you get into films in Brazil.' After reading Paulo Lins's non-fiction book City of God, about growing up in Rio, Meirelles optioned the rights and wrote a script. But he had never visited a favela and was unsure about how to get inside one. So he approached Lund, a filmmaker who in the Nineties became a specialist on Rio's favelas. Both Meirelles and Lund are from S達o Pau-
lo, Rio's rival city, and perhaps they needed to be. 'It helped that I was not from Rio,' says Meirelles. 'People from Rio are too close to what's going on. In Rio the social contrasts are so great that you are almost blinded by them.' Lund adds: 'People in Rio didn't look at the favelas before because culture puts filters in the way. People are conditioned not to think about them.' Meirelles and Lund decided that the film would use mainly local actors. They formed a group of youngsters and spent six months training them. 'Working with these guys was the best year of my life,' says Meirelles. 'Life in a favela is happy. Maybe this is difficult for the First World to understand. Paulo Lins says that no one knows how to have fun like people in the favela , and I agree. 93
We tried to put some of that in the film. Not everyone is a drug dealer. There are always big parties going on. But I didn't want to make a film about how happy it is. I'm interested in social exclusion.' Lund's first contact with organised crime came in 1996 when she managed logistics on the Michael Jackson video for 'They Don't Care About Us', which was shot in a Rio favela. She had to meet the local drug lord to arrange access. 'I realised that the favela is completely different from what I had been reading about in the papers. It has its own vivacity, its own culture,'
she says. Lund says that she thought it was important for the community to get involved. Much of the film is shot in the real Cidade de Deus. 'I don't believe in conventional actors. I can see through their technique. Because I was based in documentaries I knew what I wanted. I wanted to work with surprises and to give the same sensation as the first time I went into a favela. That all of this is going on and no one is doing anything about it.' It is estimated that about 15,000 young people are actively involved in Rio's 94
for cocaine as it leaves South America and heads for Europe. The film will be the first time that British viewers have been confronted with the effect of the cocaine business in Brazil, that cocaine users in the UK are funding this civil war. Neither Meirelles nor Lund feels that it will make Britons think twice before they use the drug. In fact, since the cocaine money has already bought weapons, the issue has become about guns rather than drugs. Cocaine maintains the status quo. 'If you got rid of cocaine these kids would come down on to the streets with their guns and the violence would be worse,' says Meirelles. He feels the only solution is to provide more opportunities for the young poor. 'Either we start to sort out these problems or Brazil turns into Colombia.'
cocaine gangs. Even though the risk of death or imprisonment is high, it is a choice many teenagers are happy to take. Trafficking is seen as glamorous and fun and one of the few ways of earning a decent wage. 'The gang leaders are always surrounded by the prettiest girls and wear the best clothes, says Lund. 'For the first time the middle class is understanding this.' The personal stories of some of the actors are not too different from the characters in the film, she adds. 'Joining a drug gang is a daily temptation for the actors who have cash put in front of their noses.' Rio de Janeiro is essentially an entrepĂ´t
Meirelles believes that some of the cast have the talent to become professionals, although in Brazil there are few roles for black people. He takes seriously his responsibility for the actors. 'After the film ended, it was as if I had acquired loads of children,' he says. Meirelles plans to help one of them move to SĂŁo Paulo. Another needs a different sort of help: Meirelles took three actors to Cannes. One of them, Roberta Rodriguez Silvia, entered a raffle and won an Audi worth ÂŁ22,000. He is trying to find a way of selling it to get her the money that would take most people in a favela more than a decade to earn.
What now for Meirelles? He says that he has turned down all Hollywood's offers to pursue a personal project which has been guaranteed funding. Like City of God the film will be about exclusion, but on an international scale. He says: 'People say that Brazil is a very unjust place. But there is no country in the world that is as unjust as the world taken as a whole.' 95
Absolutely everything you need
d to know about CITY OF GOD
Synopsis – The film
The story of the Tender Trio
a car at gunpoint. The car packs
into a playbo
In the City of God, one of the slums
up. The police shoot Shaggy. A man
job at the Su
on the hills above Rio de Janei-
takes photographs of the body.
cides to do s
ro,Buscape (Rocket)wants to be a
Rocket is envious of his camera.
photographer. He runs into Ze Pe-
The story of Little Ze
queno (Little Ze) and his armed gang
board a bus p
of children (the Runts). He tells
The story moves forward to the
the stories of the City in flashback
1970s. Rocket, still a virgin,
beginning in the 1960s when his
takes photographs of his
get out of th
brother Marreco (Goose) together
friends ‘the Groovies’ on the
with Cabeleira (Shaggy) and Alicate
beach. He fancies Angelica but she
(Clipper) are known as The Tender
has a boyfriend Thiago who has
leave the Cit
Trio. They are amateur petty thieves
graduated from smoking dope to
peace in the
who plan to rob a brothel, the Miami
snorting coke. Rocket goes to the
Motel. They takeDadinho (Little
apartment where Neguinho (Blacky)
Dice), the 9-year-old friend of
sells dope. Little Dice swaggers
hood’s life f
Shaggy’s brother Bene, along to act
in. He has changed his name to Lit-
ment breaks o
as lookout. The robbery ends in a
tle Ze. He murdered the customers
amongst the d
massacre. The Trio split up. Shaggy
at the brothel and later killed
to kill Ze, a
hides in Lucia Maracana’s house. He
Goose. At 18 he is in the drugs
is very attracted to her daughter
business, having killed all of the
Berenice. Goose meets and flirts
other dealers in the city ex-
friend. His g
with the wife of Paraiba
cept Sandro Cenoura (Carrot). Bene
whilst Ze rap
(Shorty). Shorty catches them in bed
still attempts to keep Little Ze under control advocating negotia-
The story o
together. Goose runs away and finds Bene and Little Dice hiding out in
tion rather than murder. Bene meets
Ned goes home
an unfinished building. Shorty bur-
the Groovies and admires Thiago’s
to his house
ies his wife alive, the police take
style. He bleaches his hair, gets
kill Ned’s fa
him away. Shaggy and Berenice hijack
new clothes and transforms himself
er. Carrot co 98
m is in three parts
oy. After loosing his
upermarket Rocket de-
some hold ups with his
ntinho (Stringy). They
planning to rob the
or Mane Galinha
d). Ned, who is against
vises them to study and
he City. They don’t go the robbery. Bene and in love. They plan to
ty and live a life of country. At Bene’s
ty Ze is angry that his is giving up the
for a woman. An argu-
out and they struggle
dancers. Blacky, aiming
accidentally shoots Ze is jealous of and wants Ned’s girl-
gang hold Ned down
of Knockout Ned
e in anguish. Ze goes to kill him. His gang
ather, uncle and broth-
omes by and offers Ned
a gun and Ned takes it. Although at first Ned does not want violence he and Carrot become involved in all out gang war with Ze, robbing banks and killing in order to buy bigger and better weapons. Rocket gets a job delivering newspapers, going to the newspaper offices at night where he has a friend in the photo lab. The war continues with children fighting on both sides. A boy Otto joins Carrots gang. Ned is wounded and arrested. Ze sees the TV news where Ned is being interviewed as a celebrity. He is furious that he is not seen as the boss of the city. Thiago fetches Rocket who takes pictures of Ze posing with his gang. Marina, who
sleep. Marina takes him back to her apartment where he takes his first hot shower and has his first sexual experience. Carrot and his gang spring Ned from the hospital. There is a pitched battle between the gangs and Rocket takes pictures for the newspaper. Ned is killed. Ze tries to round up the Runts to restart his business. They shoot him, the business is theirs! Rocket takes pictures of the body. The photograph makes the front page. He is now Wilson Rodrigues, photographer.
works for the newspaper, finds the photos. Rocket sees his photographs on the front page of the newspaper. He thinks Ze will kill him. The journalists want Rocket to take more pictures. Rocket can’t go back to the City, it’s too risky. He has nowhere to
Introduction City of God is an example of Brazilian national cinema. It is also an international film that secured worldwide distribution through Miramax, a major distributor that has a reputation for distributing independent films, the most famous examples are films by Quentin
uses recognisable genre features and transport them to different and more colourful locations. However recognisable these genre features might be the themes of the film and concerns of the characters are in many ways very specific to their setting.
Tarantino, and films such as The Piano
Comparisons have been made
and The Crying Game. Miramax is now
with Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction but
owned by Disney. It illustrates the com-
neither of these films actually deal
parative accessibility of World Cinema,
with social problems or issues. The rep-
a label that previously denoted only a
utation gained by City of God was for
limited distribution in art cinemas of
much part that of a film that reveals
films made known through their success
the true facts about poverty in the
in film festivals. Its success can be
slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endemic
examined through its relationship
nature of the violence that accompanies
to mainstream cinema in terms of produc-
it. Given the publicity it received, the
tion values, genre and narrative. In ex-
nature of some of the rave reviews and
amining its popularity, especially among
the stated intention of the film-makers
film-goers between 18 and 25, it is nec-
it can be studied as a political film
essary to consider how far City of God
with a message. At the same time it re100
lies heavily on the artificiality of
the film authenticity.
cinematic techniques and a complex nar-
Filming took place entirely in the
rative structure, not therealist style
slums. It was financed by TV Globo,
formerly associated with films about so-
Brazil’s biggest TV channel, and 02
cial deprivation (for example Sweet Six-
Filmes. The success of the film led to a
teen). As such it enters into the debate
TV mini-series Cidode dos Homens I City
around the form that a film’s messages
of Men set in the Dona Martela favela
should take, and whether such films
and featuring the same actors. An esti-
should contain suggestions as to the
mated 35 million viewers watched the
possible origin and remedy of the social
first series. Together with co-
inequality they represent.
director Katia Lund he started the or-
The film director
ganisation ‘Nos do cinema I ‘We of the
Fernando Meirelles had directed one pre-
boys from the favelas. The film cost
vious film, and was a director of com-
about $3m to make and has taken around
mercials for a Brazilian advertising
$30m at the box office worldwide.
Cinema. This is a workshop project for
agency, O2. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, a long 700 page multi-character novel described as ‘Dickensian’. It uses amateur actors who were recruited from the favelas and encouraged to improvises to give 101
The Narrative City of God uses narrative in a com-
up Lil Ze, and the true events of the
plex way, manipulating the timeframe,
night at the Miami Hotel are shown.
and using a narrator to lead the au-
This then proceeds to the new equi-
dience through the film. This kind of
librium at the end where we see Lil
narrator is known as homodiegetic –
Ze being assinated by the Runts – a
he is inside the narrative narrating
new generation of kids re-claiming
in the first person. The narrative
the streets, except that instead of
doesn’t fall easily into the usual
being shown playing football they’re
theory. There is certainly three
planning who they’re going to kill
parts to the film, but they don’t re-
ally fit Sid Field’s theory of a start, middle and end. The start after all is a sequence that actually heralds the end of the film, and apart from being a dramatic sequence that serves to engage the audience, it guarantees an understanding of the changed circumstances of the city, and makes the antics of the Tender Trio look rather tame compared with the later action.
Todorov’s theory of an equilibrium, followed by a disequilibrium, then a new equilibrium could be applied. The
Roland Barthes theories of action
original equilibrium of the tame ama-
and enigma codes can easily be ap-
teur gangsterism of the Tender Trio
plied, remember that Barthes said
is disrupted by the rapid escalation
that there are two ways of creating
of violence that follows the Miami
suspense in narrative, the first
Hotel raid and the jump forward in
caused by unanswered questions, the
time to the 70s where we see a grown
second by the anticipation of an action’s resolution – there are numerous examples of actions which lead to a re-action such as:
The Tender Trio’s raid on the Miami Hotel in a desire to become more serious gangsters leads to the deaths of Shaggy and Goose and eventually reveals Lil Ze’s true character.
Bene’s decision to leave the 102
gangster’s life leads to his
attempt to hold up a car, and
coming across a kindly driver who befriends them, leads to the
scene where the police find a
Ned’s decision to seek revenge
body by the roadside, and we as-
on his brother’s death leads to
sume that Rocket and Stringy
him joining Carrot’s gang and
have succumbed to violence and
his eventual death.
killed the driver, but then the car drives past with Rocket and
The killing of the security
Stringy still inside.
guard, who turns out to be Otto’s father, also leads to Ned’s death.
The desire for Lil Ze to have his picture taken leads to them fetching Rocket, whose photos are published and he not only gets a jobs as a photographer but loses his virginity (at last) to Marina
The are also numerous narrative enigma – unanswered questions – that mislead the audience.
The opening sequence is that of a relaxed street party which leads to a confrontation, and when re-played at the end of the film turns into a massacre.
We can also apply Claude Levi-
Strauss’ theory of binary oppo
The Miami Hotel raid massacre eventually turns out to be Lil Ze’s first act of mass violence.
sites – the idea that the constant creation of conflict/opposition propels narrative – to the film. Remember that these opposites can be anything, some examples in City of God
Bene’s meeting with Thiago leads
to the bike race, which we assume will end in violence, but
The contrast between the city as
actually ends in Bene buying
a glamorous tourist destination
trainers and clothes and getting
and the poverty and deprivation
a more modern image.
in the slums that surround it.
Rocket and Stringy’s abortive
The portrayal of the City of God in the 60s, the bright lighting 103
and wide open spaces, and the
Bene could be the donor, because it’s
dark, grey closed in slum at the
through him that Rocket aquires the
camera. Maybe Ned is a false hero? As for the functions of the character,
The conflict between the police and the gangsters.
The conflict between honesty and dishonesty.
there are numerous examples, but they don’t appear in the same order that Propp suggests! The film also employs numerous diegetic narrative devices to help us along, such as newspaper headlines, photographs, TV interviews
The conflict between the values
of the women – who invariably want their men to settle down
Newspaper headlines tell us what
and lead a ‘normal’ life, and
Shorty did to his wife ‘Man bur-
the men, who are invariably
ies wife alive in City of God’
looking for reasons not to!
and at the nd ‘The Self Styled Boss of the City of God is Dead’
The opposites of the camera and the gun, which is one of the
Rockets photographs taken on the beach act as a signifier of his
main themes of the film.
feelings for Angelica and his relationship with the gang of Groovies. Later his photos earn him his passage out of the slum.
The TV interview with Ned – which is seen by Rocket and Lil Ze and acts as a trigger for Ze to send for Rocket to show who’s the real boss.
Bene dancing to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ signifies his new found image, and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ being played at Bene’s farewell is ironic considering what happens there.
Our old friend Propp can’t be left out here, but it is more difficult to
The film also uses ‘Montage edit-
apply to City of God than Sweet Six-
ing’ to powerful effect. Montage ed-
teen. Rocket is obviously the hero,
iting is the way shots are put to-
and Ze the villain. Marina could be
gether to clash with each other and
the helper, or even fairy godmother.
produce shocks, rather than smooth 104
continuity. Think of the very first
perception or filling in missing in-
shots you see, the knife being sharp-
formation, for example:
ened on a stone, followed by a black screen, repeated 5 times in quick
The image that we see at the beginning of Rocket behind the
succession. Compare that with the
grill only becomes when at the
dreamy opening sequence of Sweet Six-
end he is shown taking the shots
teen. The shots of the guitar playing
of Ze bribing the police through
and the samba rhythm then contrast
the grilled window.
with shots of a nervous looking chicken watching his mates having their neck sliced and his eventual
The chicken chase at the beginning is firstly seen as rather comical, but the second time it
In contrast a different kind of edit-
leads to a massacre.
ing is used in ‘The Story of the Apartment’ where we are placed as a kind of ‘voyeur’ or spectator watch-
After the scene of Bene telling
ing what goes on and how the apart-
Ze he’s leaving we see an ols
ment changes over time, all from a
sepia photograph of them when
wide angle viewpoint and deep focus
they were kids together.
which give an exaggerated perspective with characters appearing large in the foreground, small in the back-
The Miami Hotel raid is shown twice, once when the Tender Trio
ground. The story is told with a se-
escape farcically in a stolen
ries of dissolves where people ap-
car that they can’t drive and
pear, disappear and reappear in dif-
eventually crash into shorty’s
ferent parts of the room. The walls
bar, then late when Ze shoots at
change colour, the lighting gets
the window because he’s bored
darker and darker, and the apartment
before cold-bloodedly killing
becomes more and more scruffy. The
all the customers.
apartment starts off looking like someone’s home, and ends up looking like a crack den.
Initially there is
Goose finding Lil Dice and bene
a woman, Dona Zelia, whos seems to
in the construction site is re-
occupy the apartment as a drug dealer
played a second time showing
and prostitute, but in time she dis-
Goose being shot.
appears with no explanation, like all the other women in the film.
pact of Mise-en-Scene is profound here, with the film makers using the changes in settings as a signifier of the descent of it’s occupants deeper and deeper into squalor.
The bank shoot out where Ned kills the bank worker is seen again showing Otto present, leading to his revenge killing of Ned after he joins the gang.
Split screen is used to show two episodes at the same time, and many sequences are shown twice changing our 105
The characters and representation
In managing to extricate himself from
Bene is the opposite of Ze, and is a
the slum Rocket, despite his explosive
representation of a good gangster. A
and fiery name, represents hope. His is
man with a conscience who tries to
the character that escapes the trap of
curb some of Ze’s violent behaviour.
poverty and violence and his soothing
He is both charming and popular, and
voice often acts as an antidote to the
although he witnesses violence we
violence on the screen. The shot of him
don’t see him committing any mur-
in the opening sequence is symbolic in
ders. Unlike Ze he is drawn to a
that throughout the film he remains the
life outside the slum, initially
outsider caught between the police and
through contact with Thiago and the
the gangs. We sympathise with him be-
trappings of new clothes, then he
cause he is hopeless at football, crime,
dyes his hair to make him look more
getting a girlfriend and fails to take
European. Like his brother Shaggy,
revenge for his brother’s murder. At
who died when his girlfriend per-
Bene’s farewell he is apart from the
suaded him to leave the slum, Bene’s
crowd, up on the stage helping the DJ.
relationship with Angelica changes
He tries to lead a normal life, in the
him and leads to his death, which is
supermarket, and delivering the newspa-
bound up with the rejection of Ze’s
pers. He does escape, but only because
values. In leaving his psychopathic
he is able to exploit his connections in
friend he is
leaving hi with-
His role in the film is sym-
“If you r they’ll g and if yo they’ll g too.
bolised by the shot at the end of the
out any restrain-
opening sequence, showing him trapped
ing forces and
between the gang and the police, not
part of either faction.
In contrast, Lil
Knockout Ned is
Ze represents hoplessness. We know that
drawn into the
there is no way out for him except
Carrots gang to avenge the death of
through death. He starts off as a bully-
his brother and father and rape of
ing child, then a killer child, with no
his girlfriend. He is the only one
fear or conscience. He assumes control
of the four leading characters not
and power through violence, but his mo-
seen as a child, and has seen life
tivation is not through greed, he
outside the slum, as a soldier and
doesn’t show any ambition to leave the
bus driver. He is the stereotypical
apartment, but by pure evil. He seems to
tragic hero forced to use his skills
have no redeeming features, nothing that
on his quest for retribution. Ini-
we can identify with, and the only occa-
tially he tries to tone down Carrots
sion when we feel slightly sorry for
violence, insisting that no innocent
him, at Bene’s farewell when he is re-
people are shot, but the rules have
jected by girls who he asks to dance, is
to be broken, the irony is that it
followed by the violent rape of Ned’s
is Ned’s exception to the rule which
girlfriend. He kills Tuba just because
causes his eventual death at the
he talks too much. He dies when a child
hands of Otto. He is the one de-
shoots him, a legacy of his own infan-
structive character who seems to re106
tain some humanity. He is visibly moved by Steak n’Fries death and it his mourning over the body that leads to him being shot and captured by the police.
thing other than through violence, however, apart from a brief reference to a flood being the cause of an influx of people the film makers do not provide any political reference
Carrot’s character is an enigma it-
points or background – the ‘sixties’,
self, we know nothing of his back-
the ‘seventies’ are just chapter
ground – surely in the book all the
headings that don’t explain what was
characters were thoroughly developed.
going on in Brazilian society that
His function in the narrative is
created these slums.
sketchy but crucial. He is the instigator of Ned’s downfall. He is ruthless, killing Aristotle who he thought of as a brother. He is white, but most of his gang members are black, which emphasises the lack of any particular racial issues in the story. The Tender Trio represent a different age. They have no nominated boss, they do things together, their
run away get you ou stay, get you .”
guns are toys, accessories to their bravado. They are amateurs. The film centres on the aggressive definition of
The film does have simple lessons to learn – if you live by the gun you die by the gun, if you avoid violence and retain some honest values and ambitions you escape. The film’s ending is on the one hand positive – Rocket is saved, but on the other hand the Runts are a more violent gang than ever. These are simplistic and stereotype the slum dwellers – presumably the majority of people are still trying to scrape some kind of honest living but you don’t see many examples of those except on the fringe of the plot.
masculinity. The female characters have passive
The institutions backing the film had
and peripheral roles,
originally intended the film just for
they are there to be recipients of
the Brazilian market, but the film’s
male violence and are attacked mur-
success at Film Festivals gave it a
dered and raped. None of the women,
life of its own, and Mierelles has
apart from Marina, have pivotal
used the film’s unprecedented success
as a platform for to focus the
Ideology, Values, Institution
world’s attention on the darkness of Rio’s slums, one of the most violent
Violence is the main driving force of
and dangerous places in South Ameri-
the film. Shootings, beatings and
ca. The film could not have been the
rape form the core of the action. But
commercial success it was without the
the film’s attitude to violence is a
backing of Miramax, the film distri-
means to an end for the film maker’s
bution company, but remember Miramax
main motivation for making the film -
is a commercial company, part of the
the wish for social change. It
Disney Corporation, who do not do
shows that the favelas are a breeding
things for charity, the people behind
ground for this violence because the
Miramax – the Weinstein brothers –
people have no hope of achieving any-
must have spotted a commercial opportunity in the film. 107
Liberation Aesthetics: Sinning and
By David C. Ryan | Published: July 14, 2008
Surviving in Meirellesâ€™ City of God
Fernando Meirelles’ City of
Firmino), a gangster with a dark, dark
God crackles and depresses, exhilarates
soul, are published in a Rio jornal in
and horrifies. Lauded by critics as a
the last third of the film. He snaps
frenetic work of art five years
these photos amid the bloody gang war
ago, Cidade de Deusmarked Meirelles as
between Li’l Zé and his charismatic ri-
a cinematic virtuoso. Based on the pop-
val, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).
ular novel by Paulo Lins, this film
In this world, a child’s criminal
chronicles the lives of two boys, Rock-
training begins at a more experienced
et and Li’l Zé, as they grow up in
teenaged gangster’s knee. This appren-
a favela and move to a section of Rio
ticeship starts with stealing, looting,
de Janeiro, an area in which every kind
robbing and progresses to extortion,
of human activity disturbs and appalls.
murder and gang warfare. In one horri-
Spanning more than a decade, City Of
fying scene, a boy, roughly 10 or so,
is told to kill one of two cornered
is narrated by the youthful Rocket
(Alex Rodrigues), a budding photojour-
youths (around four and nine years old)
nalist who shows promise of moving be-
of a rival gang. Goaded by Li’l Zé, he
yond this heart of darkness when his
executes the older boy in a rite of
photographs of Li’l Zé (Leandro
passage. This scene is preceded by Li’l 110
never more visceral, never more violent. Here, the origin of poverty lies not so much in diminished resources but with poor social behavior. We follow the lives of some Brazilian youths as they move from one troubled exploit to the next. Though he is often in the thick of a dizzying morass, Rocket manages to avoid too many serious problems. He does, however, benefit from the criminality of his peers. He gets a camera from one of his drug-dealing pals and, later, accepts another from Li’l Zé, the camera he uses to take gang photos that earn him an internship at a newspaper. The film focuses on Rocket’s developing work ethic. His growth from an adolescent to teenager is contrasted with the easy promises and the dangerous pathos of Rio’s youth gangs. Meirelles matches their energy with his vibrant cinematic techniques—the split screens, fluid cameras and time-lapsed photography—capturing the rush of life in its precarious and capricious moZé’s own criminal uprising. As an ado-
ments. This kinetic energy frames the
lescent, he acts as a lookout for a
story’s somewhat overlong but fast-
brothel robbery (a scheme he devised
paced vignettes. Only occasionally
but is not allowed to participate),
does City of God break from illustrat-
and, after he tricks his older accom-
ing the fiery, intense work of crime to
plices into fleeing, enters the hotel
focus on life’s smaller, quieter mo-
and murders the staff and patrons.
ments. But in this world even intimate moments explode.
These horrors are just two among many,
At the time, critic Peter Rainer, then
for in this semi-collapsed society,
of New York magazine, complained that
people are constricted by corruption
Meirelles’ techniques glamorized vio-
and engulfed by criminality. As one of
lence. Rainer’s point is debatable, for
its major themes, City of God painfully
Meirelles’ hectic style is not meant to
illustrates poverty’s numerous priva-
merely excite audiences. The filmmak-
tions: the few choices, the slim chanc-
er’s intention is to develop an empath-
es, the narrow and vicious minds. With
ic understanding of these young crimi-
plenty of guns and little insight, life
nals, because they take pride and seek
among the ruins has never been sadder,
fame in hurting their enemies. They’re 111
thrilled when they murder. The film illustrates their frame of reference, so we can comprehend how they live, make decisions and target their victims. This empathic approach is meant to make us cringe at the fast-paced world in which these kids live and die. Clearly, Meirelles wants us to see things we are unableâ€“or, more likely, unwillingâ€“to see. He understands that a movie-going audience is a varied group, but he also knows that most people will avert their
eyes from a painfully depressing world in which nothing is certain because everything is possible, including kids murdering kids. So Meirelles comes at us with a powerful ferocity, assaulting our defenses to alter our critical perspectives. Consequently, City of God has an implicit argumentâ€“that artists must possess a social conscience. For Meirelles, art must intrude into and open up closed worlds; his is a kind 112
in which upward mobility comes from criminal behavior. Because parents are largely absent, adults do not possess the answers as to how these kids will grow, so peer groups substitute for parents, and these groups, for the most part, govern themselves. Meirelles does explicitly investigate how the desire for power affects these kids as part of his broader social psychological quest to understand why young males are preoccupied with violence. His depiction, though, subverts traditional conventions. Ordinarily, audiences approach fictive narratives by suspending their disbelief. Meirelles, like many postmodern artists, disrupts this willful suspension by drawing explicit attention to his techniques, so his audience can understand how his artistic choices, such as cuts, dissolves, and pans (much credit should go to the talented editor, Daniel Rezende, as well) are as much a part of the narrative as the characters, settings and conflicts. For Meirelles, this focus on style and technique functions as another means of exploring his subject, and if we accept the premise that an artist frames his subject by his directorial choices, then we can accept that a filmmaker uses these choices to make of liberation aesthetics that sheds
arguments about his subject.
light on serious social matters. No doubt, Meirellesâ€™ pedagogy is based on a strong impulse and conviction that life can persevere even amid the most painful, shocking circumstances. Because most of us cannot immerse ourselves in the favelas, Meirelles wants us to study the filmâ€™s most painful features and try to understand the charactersâ€™ experiences. For instance, these youths yearn for power in a world
Director Fernando Meirelles asserts that life can persevere even amid the most difficult circumstances. Though all films play with temporality and spatiality, City of God alters chronology in order to illustrate the cycles of violence. In this sense, Meirelles never lets us forget that, amid the horrors and executions we are 113
witnessing, we are watching a movie. He
lustrating the relationship between
draws attention to his techniques as a
form and content, bringing to our
self-conscious means of expressing his
awareness all of film’s constituent
artistry. For this reason, City of
parts. However, he is not interested in
God strives for realism but also draws
merely creating a film to catalog his
attention to its fictive elements by
techniques (something Brian De Palma
rubbing our noses in the horrific
does far too often). Rather, for
shootings of children within a context
Meirelles, liberation aesthetics must
of non-linear storytelling and sped-up
use every technique and device neces-
imagery. A compelling story-within-a-
sary to penetrate those very worlds in
story uses freeze frames and quick
which art has little or no standing. In
fades to illustrate how an apartment
this sense, the very labor of art is to
changes hands among drug dealers. This
illuminate life’s landscapes, laby-
recursive style of narration adds more
rinths and dead ends. Meirelles,
information and different points of
Bráulio Mantovani and Lins place their
view to previous scenes, tying together
protagonist in an unwelcoming world
the past with the present.
alive with deadly horrors, and through
With Meirelles, there is a burning de-
Rocket’s eyes, we understand the algo-
sire for expression, and this burning
rithms of the city, the smells of the
doesn’t allow him to function merely as
slums, and the problems posed by rov-
a detached expositor. He commits to il-
ing, rootless masculine groups. 114
But for Meirelles,
(and being a criminal requires too much
if art must have a
work), yet, later on, he seeks his in-
dependence by working honest jobs and
then art must show a
getting by with a little luck. The film
means of escape.
seems content to let the social circum-
stances explain Li’l Zé’s pathology,
helps explain why
but Rocket’s behavior is the reason why
Rocket yearns to be-
he survives. Though we’re never quite
come a photographer
sure why he spurns criminality, we just
and why he runs to a
know that he carves a path away from
broader world that
the criminal kinship of his peers.
offers more choices.
Here, society is corrupt, and the con-
Though we sympathize
ditions of life are deeply disturbing.
with Rocket, we nev-
Only a yearning for something better is
er quite figure him
presented as an alternative to crime,
out. He, like Li’l
and individual responsibility becomes
Zé, lacks depth. Be-
the measure of all conduct. At one
cause of his youth,
point, Rocket rides the bus looking for
Rocket comments only
victims to rob with his brother’s bro-
on what he observes
ken pistol, but fortunate circumstances
even though City of
and personal decisions keep him and his
God illustrates many
friend from going through with their
things that he can-
not possibly see or fathom (such as the murder of his brother). At times, his
Despite this scene and others that sug-
narration is minimalist, even bare,
gest hope for Rocket, there is an over-
and, as a consequence, Rocket seems to
whelming fatalism for what seem to be
function as a tabula rasa, being in-
incurable social ills. Though Rocket
scribed by the environment in which he
does resist the violence, he is stalked
lives. Not finished growing, not offer-
by this nihilism. He holds his moral
ing too much insight, not a fully de-
ground because he is on the run.
veloped character, he is our guide through a lethally ironic world in
Although it never comes to terms with
which the police arm the very gangs
how to deal with youth crime,
they are charged to apprehend.
Meirelles’ film argues that art must
What this film does offer is some per-
proceed de realibus ad realiora in its
spective into the socialized power of
heightened pursuit of the truth.
peer groups, but what is thinly ex-
Meirelles also argues that artists must
plained is why Rocket yearns for some-
also come to terms with their own crea-
thing more than fitting into criminal
tive choices in order to comprehend,
enterprises. What compels him to avoid
command and shape the subject they
(as much as he can) the perils of being
study, especially if the subject is the
a hoodlum? At one point, he tells his
power of art itself.
brother that he disdains physical labor 115