A PARABLE OF POWER
Sometimes a film comes along which depicts a world which seems like a microcosm of the larger world beyond it that we all have to inhabit. Such a film, in my opinion, is Fernado Meirelles City of God. It is a roller-coaster of a film of great panache, often beautifully choreographed, about gangs engaged in the business of selling drugs in the slums of Rio de Janiero during the 1970s. The character who tells the story of the rise and eventual fall of the most ruthless of the crime-bosses, Li'l Zé (Zé Pequeño), is Rocket (Buscapé), a budding photographer whose situation as a slum-dweller gives him privileged access to subjects which no outsider could ever have had. He doesn't know the psychopathic Li'l Zé very well, as is illustrated by the fact that nearly every time they meet, Li'l Zé has to ask him his name, but he's there, and, though being there involves certain risks, it is what gives him his opportunity to make a name for himself as a photographer and eventually emigrate out of the slums.
This then is Rocket, an attractive and personable young man whose one sortie into crime as more than just an observer ends up in failure because the people he and his friend, Stringy, choose to mug turn out to be 'too cool' for them to carry it out. Apart from hanging out with Stringy and a group of 'groovies' on the beach, smoking dope which he buys from a local drug-dealer called Carrot, his main interest during the film, aside, of course, from photography, is to lose his virginity. People like Rocket are made to record history, not to make it. History is made by much more psychopathic types like Li'l Zé, who have the ruthlessness required to pursue their agendas.
What Li'l Zé desires more than anything else in the world is power and, to get it, he is willing kill off all his competitors in the drug-business, so that he can take over their businesses and become the sole cock of the walk. If it wasn't for his side-kick, Benny, "The coolest hood in the City of God", he would have killed Carrot as well, and the fact that he doesn't is part of the cause of his eventual undoing.
Li'l Zé develops a taste for killing at a very young age. When he is only about 10 or 11, he massacres the guests and workers at a hotel which his older friends have just robbed and fled from in rather a hurry. He enjoys killing. What greater power-trip, after all, can there be than killing other human beings who are at your mercy? And it is power that Li'l Zé is after and is willing to do anything to acquire. He is not content to be one drug-dealer amongst many, each doing business in his own patch. No, he wants it all and is willing to do whatever it takes to become the top dog. What interests him above everything else is the power to strut his stuff in the City of God and always have his own way.
His 'nemesis' is a 'stand-up guy' called Knockout Ned, who, for some obscure reason seems to bring out something really malevolent in Li'l Zé. Every time he encounters Knockout, he tries to humiliate him in one way or other, even to the extent of forcing him to strip naked on the dance-floor in front of his girlfriend - who had earlier refused to dance with Li'l Zé. The problem is simple, as Rocket later explains, Li'l Zé is the ugly bad guy, while Knockout Ned is the handsome good guy who can get any girl. Li'l Zé has to pay for sex or use force, and the fact that Knockout is everything that he's not seems to rub him up the wrong way. Knockout Ned, by the way, is one of those Rocket and his friend, Stringy, contemplate robbing until they decide that they cannot go through with it because they find him too 'cool'.
The turning point in the film comes when, after Li'l Zé has raped his girlfriend in front of him and his gang has murdered his uncle and teenage brother, Knockout Ned joins Carrot's gang to get revenge on Li'l Zé. He has been an expert marksmen in the army, and his expertise is just what Carrot needs to defend himself against the expected onslaught from Li'l Zé and his "soldiers". On joining, however, he insists that no innocent people get killed and Carrot agrees. Nevertheless, as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the activities of the gang, including its robberies to pay for the arms to fight Li'l Zé's gang, his scruples about killing innocent people go the way good intentions generally go. In short, he becomes as murderous as it takes and thinks nothing of killing an (albeit armed) guard whose young son is present at the time it occurs. This boy's name is Otto, and he later joins Carrot's gang in order to kill Knockout Ned in revenge.
But back to my original point that some films depict a world which is a microcosm of how the larger world functions. Before he gets himself killed by 'the runts' (But they are another story!), Li'l Zé's rise to prominence and its manner of accomplishment could be anyone's who has power as their main objective in life. Political power, economic power - the power of a Murdoch for instance - it makes little difference. To rise on that ladder requires certain psychological traits in a person, a certain ability to forget your humanity as soon as it gets in the way. Why does Li'l Zé keep forgetting Rocket's name when they meet? Because Rocket is just an ordinary person who serves no purpose in his scheme of things - until he wants his photograph taken so that he can become as famous as Knockout Ned when he is captured by the police and paraded in front of the media. Only when Rocket becomes useful to him, does he start to remember his name. That's how certain minds work and it's especially true of those who seek power.
There are, of course, people - Carrot seems to be one, Benny another - who just want to make a good living from drug-dealing. Benny even intends to retire to a farm with his girlfriend, smoke dope and listen to rock-music, because he's fed up with the life he is living. Carrot is willing to kill, because it's good for business at times. He kills Blacky, for instance, once he has heard how the latter has mistakenly killed Benny instead of Li'l Zé. Carrot knows that with Benny now dead, Li'l Zé will move in and kill him as well. Business is what interests him, selling drugs and making a living, not power. Carrot, though a criminal, is not a psychopath. Where his interests are not effected, he's an easy-going live and let live sort of person. Not so Li'l Zé, who enjoys killing because power over life and death gives him kicks which he wouldn't otherwise have.
One can imagine all the power-hungry tyrants and empire-builders in History being composed of basically the same material as Li'l Zé, and not only them. After all, does not the desire for power lie at the root of political ambition, whether or not it manifests itself in such extreme ways? It's largely kept in check in a 'democracy', except when it comes to finding excuses for war. Then the Thatchers, Bushes and Blairs of this world show what they're really made of. Li'l Zé at least doesn't have to conceal his psychopathic impulses behind a sanctimonious mask like political leaders in a 'democracy'. Even the 'good guys' who, in the spirit of Knockout Ned, might enter politics to right certain wrongs, find themselves conforming to its inhuman dictates. Li'l Zé rises because there is something missing in his psychology, something called empathy, which might allow him to see other people as people just like himself. Not so Knockout Ned, who nonetheless finds himself drawn into the spiral of killing because, well, that's what it takes to keep his head above water once he's committed. By the same token, no politician, no matter how good the cause he espouses, can claim to have completely clean hands. It is for this reason, in my opinion, that all politics is to be avoided, all attempts to acquire power over others through politics, whether 'democratic' or not, should be shunned and a different way has to be found. What this film shows is that in the end, there are no good guys and bad guys. Rocket for instance is neither a good guy nor bad guy, only someone getting on with his life. And his strength lies not in being good, like Knockout Ned, or bad, like Li'l Zé, but in the distance he keeps from the madness around him. It's not in itself enough, of course, but it's a beginning and we all have to start from somewhere.