Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) is an incredible film and I’m sure plenty has been written about its aesthetics. Today, I want to take a look at the problem of ethics in the film to decide if City of God fits any ethical framework or even has a “moral center.”
In my opinion, it is clear the City of God portrays a war-zone and thus is not informed by a standard ethical model (my favorite being my own “ethical nihilism” which I’ll write about here if someone asks me to). Now ethics has a long history of exception-dealing with wartime, a history which would make a fascinating study but which I am currently unaware of. For now, let’s just grant that, from the perspective of the war/drug lords, the war is morally ungrounded and therefore does not qualify for any “just war” status.
What is going on then? For us viewers who are personally unfamiliar with urban violence, it is easy to declare the film as “nihilistic,” i.e. people are killed with impunity and human life and all other values erased (not to be confused with “deconstruction,” which is completely different and legitimate philosophical project). The film does have a sense of nihilism to it, particularly in Nietzsche’s original sense of the “will to power” and the right of the strongest to prevail. Indeed, Li’l Ze, who from the getgo is the most driven and efficacious hoodlum, spends most of the film enjoying a position of success and even safety unknown to many of the lower thugs who are constantly being murdered. The film presents this at face value, however toward the end the story makes some value judgments here.
The episode I want to consider is the story of Knockout Ned. Over the course of his story, Ned evolves from an innocent bus employee to a vengeful warrior to a thug leader. One of the key points in this development is his reflexive killing of the bank guard, who we later (or earlier for the incredibly astute) find out is the father of Otto, a boy who signs up to fight with Knockout Ned. Then, when Otto is wounded and Ned vulnerable taking care of him, Otto shoots Ned in the back and avenges his father.
In this episode and others, City of God establishes a system of justice which depends on fate. In the end, many characters get what they deserve and the film manipulates the passage of time in order to narrate these episodes with a sense of resolution that hinges on this understanding of justice. The film does establish this kind of fairness and thus involves an ethic, what the film does not give, however, is action guidance. We see this particularly in the film’s final moments when Rocket must decide whether to print the endangering photos of police corruption. If he publishes the photos, Rocket could either be famous or die. If he does not, the corrupt policeman who kills deals weapons will not be exposed. Rocket seems to weigh these options in terms of the benefit to him, and why not? After all, the film shows equal examples of characters making moral compromises and succeeding or failing by them. In what other way can Rocket make his decision?
The film thus marries an egoist, nihilistic perspective with a larger sense of fate and justice. It is also interesting to me that the film includes no real moments of grace, forgiveness, or mercy. As an Episcopal Christian with pacifist tendencies, I hold a belief in the crucifixion of Christ as a paradigm for non-violent reaction to violent context. For Christ, the reward of such an action was uncertain, yet in the end his faithfulness to an ethic of peace was world-transforming. Similarly, I wonder what a moment of peace or forgiveness could bring to City of God, particularly for the character of Knockout Ned who claims to be all about “peace and love.” In the end, however, this remains an ethical challenge, not a rule, for City of God is right in its portrayal of the difficulty and contingency of action guidance in this midst of a dehumanizing situation.