Criminology theory in the movie city of god

The Movie City of God or Cidade de Deus in Portuguese belongs to the same genre of other Brazilian films such as Notes from a Different War and Afro Reggae. The movie explores the violent underbelly of Rio de Janeiro and depicts it realistically. The movie was released in 2002 in Brazil. In 2003, it was released worldwide. It was based on the novel of the same name by Paul Lins and was directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. (Meirelles, 2002)


The classical theorists believed that people committed crimes after having evaluated whether the results outweighed the price they would have to pay for their acts. The acts were borne out of rational choice and are borne out of free will. Classical theory had many elements such as the Rational Choice theory and Deterrence, Routine activity theory etc.

Rational choice theorists postulated that an individual came to the decision of committing crime only after he had contemplated the pros and cons of his action, his need for money, his moral values and finally how well the target was protected, the affluence of the neighborhood and finally the efficiency of the local police and judiciary. Additionally such crimes were also committed if the aggressor was aware that due to this act they can achieve notoriety and a position in the society. The actions of all the “hoods”, namely, Li’l Ze, Carrot and knockout Ned can be explained using this theory.

All the hoodlums especially Ze demonstrated how clear logic had to be used to determine their next course of action. All his actions or acts of crime were meant to serve one purpose only- that was to be the Boss in the City Of God, to be the undisputed leader. This singular motive could be seen in all other hoodlums, even the Runts. It was also obvious that the necessary preventive systems were not in place; in fact, the police in themselves were party to such acts. All the crimes were committed using clear logic. (Cordella, 1996)


Certain theorists most notably Cesar Lombroso, the founder of the positivist theory aka Anthropological criminology or criminal anthropology, differed from classical theory and based their belief on the fact that criminals in general on Darwin’s model of the society and used profiling techniques similar to that of physiognomy and phrenology. They believed that more than the human nature, the personality and physical appearance of the offender had a major role to play in his motivation to commit such acts.

The believed that criminals were born and such traits were hereditary. They also believed that the acts were A direct consequence of these physiological inadequacies and social conditions and structures had no bearing on the actions of the offender. This is found to be partly true in the movie. As rocket mentions in the movie, the only problem with Ze was that he was ugly. This was the reason why he could never influence or court the girl of his dreams, who in turn is more interested in Knockout Ned.

Therefore once he was spurned by the girl, Ze first humiliated Ned in public and then later raped the girl and waste her life and that of Ned’s family, in order to prove more to himself than others that he could in fact get anything he wanted. Therefore, it is seen that this theory does hold to be true in certain cases. If we now consider the cases of Benny and Rocket, we can see that the theory does not hold to be entirely true. It is also mentionable that these crimes and the criminals were often a product of the society. The Individual Trait theory, wherein it is believed that criminals have certain biological and psychological traits also holds true. (Tierney, 2006)


The city of Rio de Janeiro is one of extremes. The great difference between the economical status of the fluvial and the richer sections is vast. This did act as a catalyst for such criminal behavior. Everybody wanted more money and therefore greater territorial control. The economic institution is predominant.

The great imbalance in this institution creates an “anomie” and therefore crime rates increase. These instances substantiate claims of other theories such as critical theories, environmental criminological theories and conflict theories. Karl Marx believed that due to the nature of capitalistic societies, such as in Brazil, there would be a great divide between the haves and have nots. Based on this belief Conflict theorists postulated that due to this divide the economically weaker society would resort to crime in order to gain access to the elite’s world.

This is seen to be true in the case of Benny when he proclaims that he had indeed become a “playboy”. The fact that associating one’s self with antisocial peers can have great bearing in the individual’s criminal activities is also seen to be partially true. Even though a section of society associated themselves with such elements, others such as Rocket stayed away. Such tendencies may also be fuelled by endorsement by such peer group. In a particular scene in the movie, Ze is seen egging another child on and asking him to kill two children [the Runts].

Even though he is first caught in an emotional crossfire, the kid does commit that crime and is later hailed as a hero by the peer group. Therefore, the criminal tendencies in the kid are heightened. He starts believing that simply because he can kill, snort cocaine and smoke up he is no longer a kid but a man. This also substantiates the belief of feminist theory, which postulates that acts of crime may also be gender driven. As the kid says, such acts may be committed to prove one’s masculinity. (Vito, 2006) Additionally the society in the City of God is defunct. No strict cultural and social norms exist and hence no informal social controls exist. It is in societies like this, that greater chances of violence and crime spawn.


The psychological profile of Ze was indeed interesting. He somehow loved violence and killing people. It was one thing to stage a hold up, it was different when one saw the pleasure he derived from killing his first victims. Therefore, it can be seen that such acts of crime are influenced by different factors and different criminological theories can be used to ascertain the motives. However, the most amazing character of the movie is the foil to all such beliefs- Rocket. (Vito, 2006)


  • Cordella, Peter & Larry J. Siegel; 1996; Readings in Contemporary Criminological Theory; UPNE
  • Meirelles, Fernando; 2002; City of God (Cidade de Deus); Miramax (USA) & Buena Vista International Tierney,
  • John; 2006; Criminology: Theory and Context; Edition: 2, Longman Vito, Gennaro F. Jeffrey R. Maahs, Ronald M.
  • Holmes; 2006; Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy; Edition: 2, revised; Jones & Bartlett Publishers,