I received City of Men in the mail the other day and was rather looking forward to watching this follow-up to the Oscar-nominated picture City of God. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to see that I had misread, having thought that Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) had directed this film as well. Instead, he is listed as merely a producer, which means that City of Men could be good, bad or anywhere in between.
Thankfully, director Paulo Morelli holds his own and has created an engaging and visually compelling story of friendship and maturity among violent gang wars in Brazil. I don't remember City of God all that well, but I remember the colorful but gritty filmwork, the absolutely violent ferocity of its characters and so on and so forth; City of Men seems a little glossier, a little less violent and ultimately less effective, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth seeing.
The film follows two almost-18-year old men, Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), who are about as close to being brothers as friends can be. Ace already has a young son, while Laranjinha has set out to find out who is father is. But with manhood comes consequences, and the truth about his father reveals a secret that could splinter the two friends; to make matters worse, Ace has been accidentally targeted by a local gang for execution, and his only hope is to take protection with the neighborhood's other gang.
City of Men, like City of God, portrays the unimaginable recklessness of youth gangs in Rio de Janeiro and establishes some quality characters to boot. Ace and Laranjinha make good protagonists, and the two actors deliver quality performances, though it's no real surprise. Both had parts in City of God and have played the same characters in the television series "City of Men;" most of their careers have been devoted to this world.
The story itself is effective, though not as engaging as in City of God. Nevertheless, the story arc is a good one and Morelli, with a screenplay from Elena Soarez, makes it clear that you have no idea who will live and who will die. While not utterly depressing, the movie maintains a sense of hopelessness, that no one is safe in a world where gangs run free with automatic machine guns and can kill at will. My only solid complaint lies with Morelli's use of flashbacks; I can't remember if City of God had these or not, but the flashbacks, especially the short ones, come off as an awkward way to establish back story or depict emotions for some of the characters; they appear amateurish.
It would have also been interesting to see more developed villains; what goes through the minds of the gang leaders? How did they become what they are today? Are they so used to this way of life that they never have regrets about what they do?
City of Men, now out on DVD, has all the makings of a good movie: likable protagonists, good directing, quality acting and a realistic but violent setting. While not perfect, it is a respectable follow-up to its Oscar-nominated predecessor.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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