Dir: Paulo Morelli, Brazil, 106mins
A touching coming-of-age story set against the violence and poverty of Rio's favelas, City of Men is the final instalment in a cycle of work inspired by Fernando Meirelles' City of God. Featuring characters from the three-year-running TV series City of Men that was commissioned following the success of Meirelles' 2002 film (itself developed from a TV project in 2000), Paulo Morelli's film proves a worthy conclusion to the series. Filming in slum locations with a cast that includes non-professional residents, Morelli shares Meirelles' scrupulous attention to authenticity. But where City of God was sprawling and formally exuberant, this is a more restrained, quieter piece that retains the character-led focus of good television drama.
The huge success of City of God will ensure a robust international profile for City of Men, although the movie's more muted, arguably more conventional style give it a more limited appeal. City of Men's soundtrack also largely lacks City of God's intoxicating blend of samba, jazz and 70s funk, one of the keys to the popularity of Meirelles' film. The Brazilian release should be strong, not least because of the popularity of the original TV show (less widely known outside of Brazil). Handling the release in English territories, Miramax will be looking for good critical coverage to support its US release.
A more low-key proposition, City of Men will do well to match the returns of the Oscar-nominated City of God. Still, there remains a healthy international market for gritty films about social problems from Brazil, as such recent work as the prison drama Carandiru proved. Similarly, as the success of Tstotsi demonstrated films about adolescents on the margins of gang life in slum communities have broad arthouse appeal, despite the ostensibly grim subject matter.
City of Men begins on the public beach in Rio, one of the few nods to the city's image as a tourist destination in a film that is mostly restricted to the ruinous, ramshackle buildings and streets of the favelas. It's here we're introduced to teenaged friends Ace (Silva) and Wallace (Cunha), central characters from the TV series, and to Midnight, the leader of a gang which controls the Dead End Hill district, a crowded, labyrinthine collection of slum dwellings that rises steeply from the beach front.
Ace and Wallace are about to turn 18. Intermittently flashing back to footage from the TV series - allowing us a poignant view of the noticeably younger Silva and Cunha - the film charts the anxieties and choices Ace and Wallace face as they enter adulthood. The chubby, slightly buffoonish Ace frets over his duties as a father, struggling with his share of parenting the toddler he has with his young wife. Played with handsome, watchful intensity by Cunha, Wallace, meanwhile, tracks down his long absent father, the former convict Heraldo (dos Santos), with whom his growing bond threatens his friendship with Ace.
Testing their friendship even further is the gang battle between Midnight's crew and that of his former fellow hood Fatso. As in City of God, the violence between these factions is harrowing, not least because of the young age of its perpetrators and victims. Two set-piece gun-battles that see Midnight and Fatso's crew fight for control of Dead End Hill are orchestrated with deft assurance by Morelli. Conducted by kids who can barely handle their automatic weapons, the fighting is swift, clumsy, confusing, and deadly.
But the focus is arguably more on the innocent victims than it was in City of God (whose portrait of is various hoodlum anti-heroes was at queasy close-quarters). A telling scene follows the residents of Dead End Hill scurrying under metal shop shutter, swiftly brought down as the gun-fighting starts, and this concern for those caught in the crossfire is evident throughout. In one scene Ace and a shopkeeper overhear the sound gunfire, having just learnt that Midnight has sentenced one of his crew to death. 'One less', Wallace says flatly, a nice deadpan moment that underscores the way the community have become inured to violent death.
Focussed on Wallace's relationship with his father and on Ace's with his kid, the film examines the issue of paternity among young men in the favela, a concern that echoes Boyz N the Hood (a distant forerunner to Cities of God and Men). With so many absent fathers, kids inevitably look up to inappropriate role models like Midnight; and in one of the film's best scenes Midnight takes a paternal, almost kindly interest in Ace to conscript him to his gang, handing over a gun as if it were a family heirloom. But with Heraldo proving as bad a real-life influence on Wallace, the film ultimately applauds taking responsibility for one's own actions and the more concrete bonds of friendship (with Ace and Wallace's strained by the gang warfare) over unreliable father figures, real and surrogate.
More linear than the dazzlingly fragmented City of God, City of Men also unfurls at a less frenetic pace. This allows for some beautifully played moments - there is a sweet scene between Wallace and his girlfriend Camila as they listen to music, sharing MP3 headphones - but the crackling energy of Meirelles's movie is sometimes missed. Cinematography by Adriano Goldman is superb, capturing the Dead End Hill in all its distressed, run-down squalor. This documentary feel is enlivened by some artful touches - such as the desaturated palette of the flashbacks to Ace and Wallace's youth and the occasional lens flare from the white-hot sun that beats down unforgivingly on unfortunate residents of Dead End Hill.
US, UK and English-speaking territories
Andrea Barata Ribeiro
Rodrigo dos Santos