City of Men

Vantoen Pereira Jr./Miramax Films
Paulo Morelli/Brazil 2007

Gang warfare and the rivalry over the various favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have been consistent motifs of much of Brazilian cinema, most recently Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. That film, filled with directorial verve and passion, inspired a stylistically similar miniseries called City of Men and this motion picture, the series’ big screen adaptation. This spin-off of sorts seems less organically inspired than the original, as much a product of gangland clichés as the realities of life in the slums of Brazil. Still, the narrative’s major themes resonate and the story of fatherless boys forced to grow up tragically early achieves its share of pathos.

Aesthetically, filmmaker Paulo Morelli adopts a familiar combination of wide pans above and around the different locales, gritty variations in film stock, bustling street scenes and chaotic bursts of violence. The picture moves with the recognizable sort of urbanized energy in which there seems to perpetually be another montage or quick cut, set to a driving beat on the soundtrack. Screenwriter Elena Soarez follows best friends Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunah) – both teenagers – as the former struggles with his duties as a father and a husband and the latter searches for his long-departed dad. Their endeavors in these areas unfold against a tumultuous backdrop, as a rival of the local gang leader formulates a plan to seize control of his territory and wreak havoc on the lives of many of its citizens.

This makes for an effectively rendered slice-of-life drama, even with some structural concerns, like Morelli’s inability to smoothly transition between the narrative’s more verité and plot based elements. For much of the film, there remains a great dichotomy between the depicted gang war and the central friendship. Their thematic connection becomes clearer over the course of the picture, however, as the direction taken by the primary relationship directly defies what the violence appears to promise it. It should also be noted that Soarez’s screenplay too determinedly attempts to cover the entire scope of life within the favela. She populates the film with an abundance of characters, while (especially towards the beginning) Morelli cuts between them with unwieldy haste. Becoming acclimated into the milieu proves challenging, though one ultimately gets a full sense of the concerns of the residents and the tumultuous paths of their lives.

The picture recycles a familiar format, with its steady stream of kinetic activity and gangster posturing. So drenched in the muggy air, dusty roads and beautiful beaches that the screen practically drips with sweat, City of Men essentially borrows motifs better incorporated in other movies. It sets no new precedents in the history of Brazilian cinema, offering treatments of family and gang life that roughly align with those in many of its national counterparts. Yet, Silva and Cunah give fine performances, blessed with a believable mixture of confidence and vulnerability, and the filmmakers lend their story compellingly wrought emotional texture. One need not be wowed by a film’s originality to appreciate the heart and the humanity at its core, and City of Men has plenty of both.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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