Four stars (R)
City of Men is a Brazilian film focusing on a few eventful days in the lives of two best pals who grew up in hell. The story, about sons and fathers, immediate gratification and responsibility, friendship and the stark realities of life, is rich, involving and satisfying. I’ll fill you in on the colorful history behind the film, but first I want to stress the fact that the movie stands on its own. You do not need to have seen any of the works I’m about to describe in order to appreciate City of Men. After seeing it, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if you decide to seek out the creations that preceded it.
City of God was No. 2 on my list of Best Movies of 2003 (Lost in Translation was first). About it I wrote, “Divided into chapters covering three decades, this dazzling feature shows how Cidade de Deus (City of God), a housing project erected on the fringe of Rio in the ‘60s, changed from a shantytown with a juvenile crime problem into an otherworldly war zone where little boys play with real guns. Director Fernando Meirelles offers an epic that is horrifying for its unflinching presentation of an ongoing contemporary tragedy but exhilarating for the style and passion with which it is unveiled.”
The film was adapted from the based-on-fact 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins and filmed with hand-held cameras on the streets of Rio, though not in the actual Cidade de Deus, because that would have been insane. City of God was released in Brazil in 2002 and reached America in 2003, causing a sensation wherever it played.
The creators of the movie decided that daily life in such an extreme setting was too fascinating a subject to abandon, and they came up with the limited-run Brazilian TV series City of Men. While not a literal continuation of the film, the spin-off was also set in a Rio slum neighborhood overrun with gangs and it used some of the actors from the movie. The tone was lighter, however, as it followed the trials and tribulations of close friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), a pair of young teens full of energy and hope. Nineteen episodes were produced, four or five per season, from 2002 through 2005, followed by a movie version — this movie. City of God is available on DVD, as is a boxed set containing the complete City of Men TV series.
City of Men — the movie — isn’t nearly as intense or violent as City of God. It isn’t as visually and stylistically ambitious either. I state this not to complain, merely to make sure that fans of the first movie understand that this is a smaller, more intimate film centered on the best friends. Ace is 18, married with a baby son and still living with his mother. Wallace decides to try to find the father he never met, with Ace’s help, of course, and things get complicated. But never mind the sudsy plot, it’s the people that matter in City of Men. Despite the violence and poverty, the human spirit prevails. Not with everybody, but certainly with Ace, Wallace and many others in the neighborhood. Go meet them.