A story about friendship, loyalty and family in the face of crushing poverty and constant gang violence, City of Men takes place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, a familiar setting for those who have seen the film’s critically acclaimed predecessor, City of God. For a little bit of background, City of Men is the condensation of a miniseries by the same name which ran for four seasons in Brazil, making it sort of a spin-off series from the movie, City of God. Both films deal with almost identical subject matter, but City of Men is considerably lighter fare. What results is a very enjoyable two hours of drama more reminiscent of The O.C. than Scarface, but the film is stunningly beautiful to look at and relentlessly entertaining.
The plot centers around two kids, Acerola and Laranjinha (or Ace and Wallace for American viewers) with a powerful bond of friendship between them that is tested by familial ties which threaten to tear them apart. Both are consumed with the question of fatherhood: one must struggle with his fears of commitment and responsibility to find the good parent in himself while his friend continues his search for the father that he never had. All the while, warring factions create havoc in the neighborhood as Midnight, a gangster leader, is violently usurped from his home turf by his traitorous right-hand man. Moments of action smartly punctuate the story of Ace and Wallace’s friendship, increasing the stakes near the beginning of the film and refusing to let the story bog down in later sections.
Though at times peppered with melodramatic moments of suffering and hardship brought on by the constant threat of gang violence, this is ultimately an uplifting story about breaking the chain of inherited injustice and ignorance by refusing to be your father’s son. Ace and Wallace find that loyalty means nothing if it isn’t loyalty to the closest friends in your life, despite their familial history. The bleak and disturbing moments of City of Men are few and far between, which makes for a more palatable experience but arguably a less challenging one. This movie is certainly no There Will Be Blood.
One thing I can’t say enough about is the beauty of the cinematography. The juxtaposition of the terrible conditions of life in the slums with the gorgeous seaside setting is a striking sight to behold. Though the landscape certainly doesn’t overshadow the actors, there are some ingenious moments of direction which force the actors’ surroundings to the forefront and allow the viewer to take in the entirety of what it means to live in a place of such ugliness and such beauty. For me, seeing this movie was worth it for just a few shots of amazing visual brilliance.
Although I can certainly see this film working better as the miniseries that it started as, I would recommend City of Men as at least a rental. There’s nothing particularly inspiring or profound about the story, as you’ve likely seen it all before, but there’s also a lot that you probably haven’t seen. The movie is worth it for those bits that make you dizzy at the range of human experience that we hardly ever consider.