Douglas Silva as Ace
Darlan Cunha as Wallace
Jonathan Haagensen as Midnight
Rodrigo dos Santos as Heraldo
Camila Monteiro as Cris
Naima Silva as Camila
Eduardo ‘BR’ Piranha as Fasto
Luciano Vidigal as Fiel
Pedro Henrique as Caju
Maurício Gonçalves as Cris’s father
Vinícius and Vitor Oliveira as Clayton
Directed by Paulo Morelli
Ace and Wallace (Douglas Silva & Darlan Cunha) have been friends since childhood, but as they reach their 18th birthdays, their community on Dead End Hill is torn apart by rival gangs, putting them on opposite sides of the war. At the same time, Wallace is trying to find his father who left when he was just a baby, but finding him and being able to get him back in his life might be two very different things.
When Fernando Meirelles’ City of God first introduced us to the violent world of the gangster-run favelas of Rio de Janeiro, it was a shocking awakening for non-Brazilians who had no idea that this level poverty can lead to even the youngest children to become thieves and even killers, but it showed that gangster violence was not confined to American cities like South Central, L.A. and that in fact, it was even worse in places like Rio.
Meirelles discovered an amazing pool of talent for the movie, many of whom return for this second feature which acts as a bookend to the overall project, concluding the stories told during the television show “City of Men,” which aired in the United States in a heavily-condensed format on the Sundance Channel. With a script by Elena Soares, who penned the excellent “House of Sand,” and directed by Mereille’s long-time partner Paulo Morelli, “City of Men” is a different film experience from “City of God” in terms of look and feel, a simpler linear story that takes place over the course of a few days.
Friends Ace and Wallace aren’t involved in the main gang of Dead End Hill led by Midnight, Wallace’s cousin, though they’re all friends. So when a lowly thug named Fiel is sentenced to death and Midnight’s lieutenant Fasto sets Fiel free in return for his help deposing Midnight, the two friends get caught in the resulting firefight. The two young men are more concerned with their impending 18th birthdays where they have to get jobs and start being responsible. After his girlfriend leaves him to take care of the young son they had together, Ace agrees to help Wallace find his father, although it leads to a secret from the past that threatens to ruin the two boys’ friendships.
Many of the actors from “City of God” have returned, though in fact, most of them have been playing these characters for the entire run of the television. Having not seen the show, it’s sometimes hard keeping up with all of the characters and their relationships, but the story isn’t so complicated that one can’t figure out what’s going on, and there are enough flashbacks to the show to get anyone that hasn’t seen the show up to speed on who everyone is.
Douglas Silva, who played the younger Zé in “City of God,” is deeply enjoyable as Ace, a smart and fun-loving young man who gets caught in circumstance, and he emits a lot more personality and charisma on screen then Darlan Cunha as his best friend Wallace. They do work well as a duo though, and the film has the added benefits of the television show to include convincing flashbacks of the two friends over the years without having to cast younger look-alikes. Still, some of the best moments are the ones with Wallace trying to connect with his estranged father, played by Rodrigo dos Santos, which offers genuine joy amidst all of the turmoil. It would have been nice to see more parallels drawn to the relationship between Ace and his young son considering the film’s inherent themes of growing up without a father. It seems like a missed opportunity barely grazed upon in the film’s opening and conclusion, but it should have played a larger part in the overall story.
There are only two of the signature shoot-outs seen in “City of God,” and for the most part, the violence is kept comparatively minimal, being more about these two friends and the people caught in the crossfire. Even so, it’s hard to forget while watching their story that most of the key players are kids, teenagers, getting heavily involved in the world of drugs, crime and violence, much of their involvement coming from the environment in which they were raised. Midnight is one of the film’s more fascinating secondary characters in the sense he’s in control only to the point where his arrogance as a leader ultimately leads to his downfall, much like Zé from “City of God.”
A veteran of the television show, Morelli has a great eye for visuals and along with D.P. Adriano Goldman, he creates many gorgeous shots including a number of glorious aerial tracking shots of the favela portion of Rio that have rarely if ever been seen in this manner. With a terrific score by Antonio Pinto, it certainly looks and feels more like a big budget film with actors rather than the DIY feel of “City of God” that looked like it was documenting real lives. Some of the effectiveness of the film is lost because of this, but on its own merits, its a well-executed film that gives a more human look at the people living in Rio’s favelas that doesn’t have to resort on bullets and blood to keep the viewer riveted.
The Bottom Line:
“City of Men” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking comparable to HBO’s “The Wire” in the way it contrasts the beauty of Rio de Janeiro with the violence that affects the lives of the teens living in the city’s favelas. If you enjoyed “City of God” or happened to be one of the few people who saw the “City of Men” television show, you should enjoy this bookend feature that does a good job closing the story of Dead End Hill and the two friends who live there, though it works just as well as a stand-alone story. (In other words, you don’t have to have seen “City of God” or the television show to enjoy it.)