Coincidences or symptoms?

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


Four stories narrated in recent films portray the tensions and consequences of life in very unequal societies, a situation that impacts people's lives in a decisive way

Coincidences are curious. They stimulate our curiosity to seek ways to explain similar or similar situations. As we live in societies that have gone through the “disenchantment of the world”, as described by an ancient theorist, most of our explanations about the world and the events around us involve investigations based on evidence and reasons. This process considerably diminished the role of supernatural explanations in our explanations, including the exciting coincidences we noticed. And it is within this expectation, that it is possible to gather evidence and reasons to offer an explanation, that an attempt is made to approach a thematic coincidence of some current cinematographic productions. This attempt involves four audiovisual productions made in different countries and with great prominence today, together with some hypotheses about the difficulties of our contemporary ways of life. We are not looking here for a last word on the topics addressed, but to think about possibilities, and perhaps contribute to the understanding of a phenomenon that is currently much discussed. But, first of all, let's get to know the stories narrated in these productions (which may be just one), with some revelations about their plots.

“They look healthy. They are quite healthy, just unemployed.”

The film Parasite (South Korea, 2019), directed by BongJoon-ho, portrays the life and meeting of the Kim and Park families in the city of Seoul. The four members of the Kim family are plagued by unemployment, without high expectations and live in a “semi-underground house” in terrible conditions. With basic difficulties for survival, without access to basic food and structural services. The Park family lives in a large and well-structured house, with employees and services available at all times. Its four members live with resources coming from the well-paid and recognized work of the head of the family and their concerns go beyond basic survival. This extremely different scenario draws attention because it takes place in a rich country like South Korea, a hub of technological development and sophistication. Also noteworthy is the fact that, even though they are talented and competent, the young members of the Kim family will not have many opportunities to improve their living conditions through education and work, as is traditionally expected in production and consumption societies. However, in the film, everything seems to be in its proper place, where society functions normally even with the existing social distances; “Everything is so natural”, tells us one of the characters. However, this is not the case.

The situation of parasitism involved in the title begins when these families meet. Gradually, through a less than honest adjustment, the Kim family infiltrates the Park family home as servants. They then begin to live the daily life of the family and take advantage of its resources, either in the form of a salary or in the form of using goods and services. And all this without the knowledge of the wealthy family that welcomes them. Interestingly, distrust arises when one realizes that the employees smell alike, which points to the poor housing and living conditions. Throughout the film, tensions between the two ways of life represented by the families will arise and grow, as highlighted by a sentence said by the mother of the Kim family: “If I had all this money, I would also be kind”. The “ghosts” of the relationship between such different types of life, where some have almost nothing and others have everything, cause violence and brutality to arise from humiliation and resentment. “Now they'll just see”, says the father of the Kim family, in a scene where he demands respect and some form of reparation in relation to what he lives and what he feels.

All these shocks presented in Parasite are increasingly common in the contemporary world. As the Serbian economist Branko Milanovic points out in Global Inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization (2016), even if in recent decades economic inequality has decreased in the world as a whole, material and social distances have increased within countries, as shown in the scenario of South Korea presented in Parasite. This paradoxical situation occurs due to the dynamics of each country, where those with more resources have more opportunities and access and those who have less lose control over their lives. Such situations can contribute to the rise of political tensions and social imbalances like what we see in the film. Milanovic defends the adoption of public policies that seek to limit the scope of inequality and imbalance. Such actions are necessary based on (i) instrumental reasons (expanding people's training and qualification possibilities so that they produce and consume better), (ii) equity reasons (expanding opportunities and access, so that people can exercising rights) and (iii) political reasons (increasing people's participation in decision-making processes). For Milanovic, it is through these recognitions of citizenship and rights that the impact of increasing inequalities in our societies can be reduced. But a question remains: and if nothing is done?

"What are we going to eat? Is obvious. Leftovers from the people upstairs.”

The film The well (Spain, 2019) explores a scenario that also involves inequalities, but resorting to an unusual situation, close to dystopias. In this film, directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, we have a prison divided by floors, in which people spend months living in a very peculiar way. Daily they are fed by a platform, which descends through the different floors, where each one eats what is left of the upper floors. Thus, the lower the floor, the worse the conditions of existence. Another feature of the situation is that people change floors every period. The main character, for example, goes through level 33, 202 and 6, in a situation that brings even more insecurity to those involved. It is literally unknown where he will be in the next period. We are not sure what this structure is about, whether it is a social experiment or a penal institution, and even so, the story is engaging and stimulates reflections on the role of inequalities. In an environment of uncertainty, in which building bonds is always a challenge and the struggle for survival is constant, thinking about quality of life is an impossible exercise.

Throughout history, episodes of violence and brutality arise, especially on the lower floors. Attempts to build cooperative and organized practices are hampered by fear and uncertainty about the future, and the main character goes through all these stages. He tries not to let himself be carried away by circumstances, but recognizes the difficulties of maintaining his values ​​in the midst of a context where “spontaneous solidarity” never sprouts. Old debates arise: Is human nature bad? Do the conditions to which we are exposed determine our actions? How to encourage cooperation? An interesting point is that the food is prepared with refinement, in a clean and sophisticated kitchen and then goes down to the lower floors. At first, it is not known for sure how many floors it will go down, but one certainty is possible: it will end well before the end and many people will be without food. This situation causes extreme actions to occur and rebellions to be planned. But what would be the best way to call attention to this terrible situation of insecurity, survival difficulties and brutality? How to live there?

The well it can be interpreted as an allegory of contemporary societies and their great inequalities in resources and access. In addition, it highlights important information: the fact that differences and inequalities end up impacting everyone's life in a society. This is due to constant social risks, in addition to the uncertainty present in everyday life. Social epidemiology researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present in The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better (2009) data that show how societies with more inequality offer a worse life for their members. According to his general argument, important social traits such as trust and the establishment of social bonds are impacted in very unequal societies, making it difficult to build common responses to the challenges of societies and this impacts everyone's lives, regardless of social status. This is the case of violence, which has consequences for all classes, with underlying insecurity and conflicts, as we see in The well. There, regardless of the floor occupied, tension and risk are a common feature of life.

More recently, Wilkinson and Pickett published The Inner Level: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone's well-being (2019), in which they highlight the ways in which more egalitarian societies promote collective well-being in more effective ways. They resume their argument that unequal societies have more social tensions and difficulties, with a consequent increase in violence, drug use and psychosocial illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. Less inequality will not bring “Heaven to Earth” or a solution to all human problems, but it will expand the possibilities for fulfillment and organization of people's lives. As we follow in The well, the absence of stability and great uncertainties regarding the future are decisive elements for the emergence of instability and violence, in a situation in which possible responses and confrontations require drastic actions and attitudes for the development of some organization of life. Thus, the film and research by Pickett and Wilkinson stimulate our reflection on the ways in which our society is organized and on the need to build more effective means so that all of us can enjoy life a little more, regardless of the place we occupy in society. social scale.

"They don't give a damn about people like you and me."

For those who follow superhero stories, the Joker is one of the most interesting villains. In each story where he appears with his rival Batman, there are several open possibilities, due to the anarchic and unusual nature of the character. Much of what scares about the Joker involves this instability, when compared to the orderly, coherent, objective and predictable Batman. Joker laughs while attacking and being attacked, jokes about the hero's strategies and principles, distorts plans and is capable of the most varied attitudes, understandable or not, to bring a little "joy" to the Batman contexts. However, there are different ways of performing and being the Joker: a “classic” Joker, who falls into a vat of chemicals and turns into a madman, or an “anarchic” Joker, who appears out of nowhere and has no great goals. other than showing the irrationality of the social system in which we live. A third possibility is presented to us in the character's own film, entitled just as Joker (United States, 2019) and directed by Todd Philips.

There we meet Arthur Fleck, an ordinary guy who works as a clown on the streets of Gotham City in 1981. He is a fragile figure, who suffers a series of violence and abuse throughout history: at work, on the streets, in the past. He lives with his mother in very bad conditions, in a dirty and gloomy city, abandoned by those who could lead it. He has no control either over himself (a disturbing illness makes him laugh embarrassingly) or over his life (he can't keep up his job or his personal life). Fleck no longer has access to the health service that served him, due to the failure of public services, nor to the medicines he needed. He can't build social bonds, nor exactly conceive objectives and goals. Without opportunities, access or resources, he begins to live in an oscillation between delusions and reality and we begin to no longer distinguish between these two fronts throughout history. Fleck's resignation to his circumstances is also striking; but there seems to be nothing to be done. “That's life,” says a television comedian whom Fleck admires at all times.

But he reacts. In one of the most interesting scenes in the film, inside a subway, he has contact with three well-dressed and wealthy individuals. “Now they will see that I exist,” says Fleck in one of the later sequences. His condition of inferiority built by abandonment and neglect gives rise to a “clown” full of resentment and brutality. His main targets are those who spurned him, most notably a wealthy representative of the local elite who may or may not have more direct ties to Fleck. But it is not known, as Arthur is already turning into the Joker and reality seems to be increasingly distorted. His actions already inspire other acts around the city, in which social organization is chaotic. More questions arise: Joker is a madman or a murderer? What could have been done to prevent Fleck's peaceful figure from becoming this “agent of chaos”? How did Gotham's social structures promote this situation? Do we owe Fleck something or do we need to eliminate him as soon as possible? As we reflect, Joker is already dancing on the stairs, inspiring so many other “clowns” abandoned to their fate, who feel their impotence in the face of the world around them and who frighten Gotham.

Joker dialogues with the difficulty of maintaining control of one's own life in the contemporary world. Social, economic and political crises limit the autonomy of people, who see their lives impacted by circumstances they do not understand and which undermine social systems. The great social and economic differences resulting from such crises increase the complexity of the scenario. Philosopher Thomas M. Scanlon develops an analysis of the impact of economic and political differences on Why does inequality matter? (2018). Scanlon offers four reasons to defend the concern with inequality: (i) the participants of a society have the right to enjoy what is built collectively, since no one creates or enriches alone within an interdependent network of producers, workers and consumers ; (ii) people born into poorer families cannot develop their potential due simply to the “birth lottery”, which is unfair; (iii) the richest people come to have more and more power and influence over other people's lives, both economically and politically; (iv) together, such differences end up impacting the functioning of democracy, with consequences for the degree of citizenship attributed to people according to their social situation.

For Scanlon, these four reasons point to the need for societies to be concerned with inequality, since, together, the social and democratic foundations can be severely impacted, as we observe in the story of Joker. The lack of consideration for citizenship and rights makes life in Gotham unfeasible, promoting violent and brutal tensions and conflicts. Thus, public policies that reduce this impact are necessary to improve the conditions of joint existence in contemporary societies. It is not the adoption of oppressive systems that seek equality through the violent suppression of freedoms, but the construction of actions aimed at granting rights and citizenship so that people can enjoy life in society, starting from the construction of social bonds that foster this dynamic. The story of Arthur Fleck's transformation into Joker encourages us to reflect on the possible consequences of living in societies where these bonds are not considered, where resentment, lack of trust, brutality and violence become common traits. Or, in the words of the Joker himself: “They think we'll just sit back and take it like good boys! Without getting angry and breaking everything!”

“How can they be like us?”

Yes, Bacurau (Brasil, 2019), jointly directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, depicts events in the near future in a small town in the deep interior of Northeast Brazil, whose name is the title of the film. We get to know life in this small place, which “is not on the map”, where there is no basic sanitation or structured public services, which means that residents need to organize themselves mutually to have water and resources. There are not many job opportunities or big companies, but neither is there a constant concern with “growth” or “development”, whatever that may be. The presence of traditional politicians is rejected, but the self-management of life and space seem to guarantee minimally dignified conditions of existence, with strong community belonging. A teacher, a doctor, a group of protectors, children and the elderly, artists, prostitutes, among others, resist in the community, with some access to technology, but without disregarding community and traditional experiences. Life is simple, poor and hard, but it seems to be paradoxically good.

However, at some point, strange things start to happen. Unprecedented visits and the presence of a suspicious drone draw attention, especially when the exchange of information via cell phone is blocked in Bacurau and news of violent deaths begins to arrive. This is an invasion. The peaceful life is taken by tension, but, contrary to what the situation suggests, the simplicity of the people of Bacurau does not leave room for victimization. We don't know how or why, but the attempt at foreign invasion involves a “scavenger hunt” for human beings by well-armed foreigners, who are organized in a game where whoever kills the most is awarded, with the aim of eliminating the local population. . The invaders are comfortable with their objective, as those lives are not considered and are not “on the map”, which makes their deaths “trivial”. In fact, in the interpretation of one of the invaders, everyone in that country was, in some way, inferior to them. It is not possible to rely on public safety, as “there are no police” there, but Bacurau knows how to defend itself.

The history of Bacurau it is open to different interpretations, but a common trait involves the difference between those who arrive and those who are there. This form of inequality makes the death of the latter accepted as natural and even necessary by the invaders, based on racial and social criteria. Lives in Bacurau are disposable. And the practice of death has support from local politics and people from the same country. Regarding this situation, the “management of death”, with naturalization and acceptance that some lives are expendable, was identified by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe (2003) as “necropolitics”, where the state and its structure define “who should live and who must die.” Broadly speaking, this definition involves people's place within the social scale, where it is "natural" for some to die, given the ways in which we organize ourselves. Within increasingly unequal structures, this logic will impact the lives of those who do not fit into the logic of production and consumption. “Poor”, “unemployed”, “bandits”, “vagabonds”, “inferior”, among other categories labeled from their participation in the “march of development” die at all times, and this is naturalized within necropolitics.

Necropolitics, as presented by Mbembe in Necropolitics: Biopower, sovereignty, state of exception, politics of death, it involves accepting the disposable character of some lives and, as we see in Bacurau, it seems to follow the “natural order of things”. In general, this characterization needs to involve a process of dehumanization, which makes some people inferior because of the place they occupy. In unequal societies, where the resources and access that each one has determine their conditions of existence, some lives also seem disposable. In Mbembe's analysis, the political organization ends up legitimizing this process, through organizations and practices that contribute to its effectiveness and it is a recurrent situation in history. Bacurau's history encourages us to observe and reflect on these aspects. A feature that calls the attention of the film is the constant role of educational processes for resistance in the city, whether in the figure of the school, in the activities of the teacher, in the doctor who guides and in the talent for writing of the main defender. This feature seems to be fundamental for the protection of the city, in which citizen participation in local decisions is recurrent and decisive. It can even be said that education and citizenship save lives in Bacurau.


Somehow, the stories narrated in these recent films portray the tensions and consequences of life in very unequal societies, a situation that impacts people's lives in a decisive way. The economic, social, historical and philosophical analyzes addressed show that this trait is not just a coincidence, but a symptom of our time. According to the place occupied in the social scale, the lives that people live are more and more different. And this has several consequences, especially when many people lose control over their lives, and the lack of expectations promoted by this lack of control is common. Paradoxically, all of this takes place in an intensely connected and technologically developed world, which promotes virtual approximations, but which is socially distant. It is not by chance that we see so much resentment and negativity in the networks, feelings and emotions that overflow into the political and social field, configuring fractured and polarized societies. Many of us end up resorting to power speeches, with an appeal to violence, to organize “everything that is there”. However, there are no easy answers to structural and profound questions of our ways of life. Understanding these processes and thinking about ways to limit their impacts is one of the main challenges of our time.

*Jose Costa Junior is professor of philosophy and social sciences at IFMG –Campus New bridge.


nighthawk. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. 131 minutes. Brazil, 2019

Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips. 122 minutes. USA, 2019.

The well. Directed by GalderGaztelu-Urrutia. 95 minutes. Spain, 2019.

Parasite. Directed by BongJoon-ho. 132 minutes. South Korea, 2019.

MBEMBE, Achilles. Necropolitics: Biopower, sovereignty, state of exception, politics of death. Translation by Renata Santini. São Paulo, n-1, 2019. (2003)

MILANOVIC, Branko. Global Inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization🇧🇷 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

SCANLON, Thomas. Why does inequality matter? Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2018.

WILKINSON, Richard; PICKETT, Kate. The InnerLevel: How more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone's well-being. New York: Penguin, 2019.

WILKINSON, Richard; PICKETT, Kate. The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane, 2009.



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