City of Men
When is a sequel not a sequel?
City of Men
Directed by Paulo Morelli
Cast: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha
One of the reasons City of Men isn’t quite as good as Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 film City of God may be that the two are only loosely related. City of Men covers much the same ground as City of God, features the same two actors, has almost the exact same title and feels--for all the world--like a direct sequel. But it’s not. It’s actually based on a 2004 Brazilian TV series directed by Paulo Morelli. That series was based on a short film from 2000 called “Palace II.” That short was based on a novel by Brazilian writer Paolo Lins. That book was the primordial inspiration for both City of Men and City of God--hence the loose relationship.
Given the universal acclaim of Meirelles’ film and its multiple Oscar nominations, it’s got to come as something of a compliment that City of Men and City of God would be mentioned in the same breath. But those expecting a follow-up of equal caliber are forewarned: This is not City of God 2.
The City of Men TV series (which ran for 19 episodes) explored much of the same territory as City of God, examining the lives of young gangsters stuck in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. As in the series, our main protagonists for this feature film go-around are Laranjinha, aka “Wallace” (Darlan Cunha from City of God), and Acerola, aka “Ace” (Douglas Silva from City of God), two longtime friends on the verge of turning 18. These knockabout best buds are only tangentially connected to the gangs who rule the Rio neighborhoods (each built around a different “hill”). Wallace’s cousin Madrugadao (Jonathan Haagensen) is the babyfaced warlord of their particular neighborhood. For the most part, however, Wallace and Ace stay out of the trouble that is endemic to Rio’s hills. Wallace is primarily interested in locating his long-lost father, while Ace is trying to come to grips with the fact that he, himself, is father to a young toddler.
While City of God featured a pronounced absence of God, City of Men spotlights a distinct lack of men. Our teenage heroes have no one to look up to, having virtually raised themselves on the hardscrabble streets of Rio. Neither has known the guiding hand of a father figure. Despite knowing that his father has spent the last 15 years in jail, Wallace is eager to find the man, if only to understand a bit of where he comes from. Wallace eventually tracks down the embittered Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos), who admits to fathering the teen, but has little to offer in the way of closure. Ace, meanwhile, struggles with his own fatherly position. He wants to bring his own son up properly but is ambivalent over his role--forgetfully leaving the kid at the beach and cheating on his wife whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Eventually, a gang war between Madrugadao and his “Judas” of a lieutenant, Fasto (Eduardo BR), spills out into the streets of Rio, trapping Wallace and Ace in the middle. Wallace tries to recuse himself from the rapidly expanding bloodshed, instead immersing himself in a shaky domestic alliance with his father, who has finally consented to a little face time with his offspring. Ace, meanwhile, finds his domestic situation rapidly unraveling and soon allies himself with Madrugadao’s exiled forces as they attempt to reclaim their besieged neighborhood by force.
Wallace’s relationship with his father provides the film with its emotional center. In Wallace, Heraldo sees a younger version of himself and he tries (to the best of his meager abilities) to keep the kid from making the same mistakes as his old man. Eventually, though, bloodshed takes over and our two protagonists have only each other to rely on.
Paulo Morelli doesn’t have quite the same taste for brightly polished violence as Fernando Meirelles. The bullets start flying at the halfway mark, sending dozens of pint-sized foot soldiers navigating the maze-like streets of Rio like so many Call of Duty players. Though less visually engaging than Meirelles’ eye candy, it’s arguably more realistic. But in the end, Morelli’s less-stylized violence has less of a sense of menace to it. While there’s still something unnerving about seeing underage kids stalking the streets, machine guns in hand, City of Men never makes its villains threatening enough, lessening the life-and-death struggle of all involved. Like Meirelles, Morelli’s got much more Francis Ford Coppola in him than Martin Scorsese. Gritty as City of Men wants to be, it’s still a heavily scripted movie fantasy--a fact that comes through no more clearly than in the film’s too-tidy twist ending.
Ultimately, Morelli’s City of Men is a slick character drama with an exotic backdrop of guns n’ drugs. It’s doubtful the film, for reasons of skill, originality and timing, will reach the same heights of art house acclaim as Meirelles’ City of God. But as a nonetheless vibrant companion piece to that 2002 winner, City of Men is worth a shot.