Boyz in the Favelas.
To a degree, that's what "City of Men" feels like. Most of the films that depict American inner-city gangs get caught up in the culture of "cool," so while the goal of realism traditionally is to raise awareness and prompt change, films like these instead end up glorifying (and therefore perpetuating) the gangbanger lifestyle. That's wasn't the case with "Boyz in the Hood," and it's not the case with "City of Men," which was made into a movie after a TV show by the same name aired in Brazil as a follow-up to Fernando Meirelles' Oscar-nominated "City of God" (2003).
Paulo Morelli, who worked under Meirelles on the TV show, does a decent job directing this sequel, which he described in an interesting way on the single bonus feature: "'City of God' was a movie about drug dealing, with the community in the background; 'City of Men' is a movie about community, with the drug dealing in the background." And while this follow-up isn't as hard-hitting, the characters are so likable that viewers will likely forgive the familiar plot and subject matter.
"City of Men" revolves around the lives of two lifelong friends, Acerola, or "Ace" (Douglas Silva), as he's called in the shanty towns, and Laranjinha, or "Wallace" (Darlan Cunha). Though the lads are approaching their 18th birthdays, this is far from a coming-of-age story. If anything, it's a story about how extreme poverty and the limitations imposed on residents of the favelas by the drug-dealing gangs that run them can wear people down, no matter what their ages. Wallace loves his motorcycle and decides to finally try to find the father he never new. Ace is a young father who's married already, and wanting to step up and take care of the boy, unlike his own father. Fatherhood is the theme, but they're both still boys, really, and they hug each other and laugh and do irresponsible things, cheerily, despite living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and being touched by the gang culture.
There's a little "West Side Story" in here, with the brother of one character getting killed because of the cousin of another--although the emphasis isn't on romance. There's a practical feeling about this film, where even the male-female relationships feel guarded, given the dead-end backdrop of the Rio slums. You get the feeling that the women know that sex means babies and babies mean more hardship.
Silva and Cunha have a great screen presence, but so does gang leader Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen), who announces one day that he wants to go for a swim at the beach below. Sounds like no big deal, right? Except that this fellow who's held "the hill" and rules it like a warlord hasn't left it for three years, so his little dip in the ocean comes with guards as well as his "posse." But like a game of King of the Hill, a rival and his cohorts have ideas about retaking the hill, and that drives part of the plot. The other main thread involves Ace and Wallace, who learn things about their pasts that help us keep everything in perspective, and threaten their friendship. This is a gritty story, but not a difficult one to watch, because the characters are so surprisingly normal and they're not all hellbent on looking cool. Attitude? Not really. They're just regular people, and that makes them cool as can be. This past year I went to a grade school talent show where the best performer was a street dancer who dressed the part of a gangbanger. But after his kick-butt performance? This 11 year old went to the audience and hopped onto the lap of his father, and they gave each other big ol' hugs. I was reminded of that moment as I watched this film and the characters who weren't fettered with an artificial construct like "cool." It's what makes these characters ultimately sympathetic--even Midnight, who isn't afraid to show a soft or likable side.
But the plot is familiar. Without giving too much away, there's not all that more to be said about the narrative. The boys try to find Wallace's father, they learn things about their fathers, and Midnight's reign is challenged by Fasto (Eduardo BR) and his followers, with the predictable shoot-outs. What saves this one is the level of humanity that's always in evidence, and the stylized way that Morelli approached the task of filming. As you watch this you'll see a little of the cinematic tricks that Steven Soderbergh used in "Traffic": the chopped-up, collage style narrative; the sped-up and slowed-down cameras; the odd angles; the deliberate use of graininess to support the gritty content; and the use of tints to impart a monochromatic look in certain scenes. This too adds interest. Still, this doesn't have the impact of "City of God," and that makes it a decent film, not one you'd run through the streets trumpeting.
Because of all the camera tricks this is a hard film to rate in terms of video quality, because so much is deliberate. The hand-held camera, the graininess, the blurred edges and quick cuts all obscure detail and impart a homemade movie roughness. "City of Men" is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and "enhanced" for 16x9 screens.
The sound is also a little rough. The main track is a Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. There's an almost muted quality to the sound in many spots, and even when the gunfire pops up it's not nearly as dynamic as you'd expect. Then again, this isn't intended to be a slick movie. It's shot in documentary fly-on-the-wall style, and you have to believe that this too was a conscious decision. Still, I can picture this with a little more fullness of sound and it would certainly work just as well.
The only bonus feature is a pretty by-the-numbers making-of feature, "Building A City of Man," which has the usual blend of interviews and behind-the-scenes clips intercut with scenes from the movie. The most interest comes from comparisons to "City of God."
"City of Men" doesn't pack the same punch as "City of God," but the characters are so engaging that viewers are likely to forgive the slender and overly familiar plot. And the director's stylized approach to realism is also oddly mesmerizing.