Had Paulo Morelli’s City of Men (Cidade dos Homens) not opened locally, this past weekend’s moviegoing would have been an exercise in wholesale mediocrity. Unfortunately, this looks like another worthy film that won’t be with us long enough for many to see it. I’d like to think that the reason I was the audience for the 2 p.m. show on Easter Sunday is that most people were dyeing eggs and engorging themselves on chocolate bunnies.
That undoubtedly plays into it—as does the fact that the film’s opening was learned of too late to allow its inclusion in last week’s list of upcoming movies—but it would be faux-ingenuous not to realize that a movie in Portuguese about life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro just isn’t likely to pack in an audience. Whatever the cause, the movie will no longer be playing after Thursday.
That’s too bad, because Morelli’s film is probably even better than I think it is. I say this because it’s a film that suffers by comparison with the film that spawned it, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002). The new film is actually a spin-off of the TV series City of Men that came about in the wake of the startling success of City of God, which scored an Oscar Best Director nomination for Meirelles.
Not being as good as the breathtakingly brilliant City of God is hardly a crime in itself. Morelli’s film is a more intimate work that’s perhaps more audience-accessible in its relative simplicity and greater sense of hope. In fact, the weakest part of City of Men lies in its attempt to emulate the look of the original. Here that look feels less an inherent part of the film—to the degree that it sometimes distracts from the drama.
The story focuses on two sweet-faced young men, Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), lifelong friends on the verge of turning 18 and facing the difficult prospect of adulthood in Rio’s favelas. Each has his own burden. Ace has fathered a child, Clayton (Vinicius and Vitius Oliveira), who he isn’t really prepared to deal with, and has a wife, Cris (Camila Monteiro), who both expects more support out of him and dreams of a better life. Wallace faces the prospect that the papers he’ll receive on turning 18 will read “father unknown,” which he views as a terrific stigma. His goal in life is to find his father—and to hook up with Camila (Naiama Silva), which seems even more unlikely than finding his father since her brother, Fiel (Luciano Vidigal), is overprotective to say the least. These problems—and complications involving them with warring factions of drug gangs—form the crux of the film’s drama.
A certain amount of the storyline is of a contrived nature that smacks more than a little of soap opera (by way of Romeo and Juliet even)—and it’s soap opera unleavened by the wit of Almodóvar. Nonetheless, the film works more than it doesn’t thanks in large part to the appealing performances of Silva and Cunha. There’s a genuine sense of friendship and bonding between the two that results in an unusual chemistry (possibly because both actors date back to Meirelles’ original film). The pair are immensely likable and seem less to be playing their roles than actually living them. It’s this—and the film’s overriding message that love and friendship can and do exist under the most seemingly hopeless of circumstances—that makes City of Men such a worthy, compelling drama. Catch it if you can. Rated R for violence, strong language, drug use and sexuality.