Like most movies about teenagers, "City of Men" deals with cliques, rivalries and rites of passage. But the Brazilian film leaves an indelible mark on the memory: Growing up in a Rio de Janiero shantytown means you play king of the hill with real guns and live ammo.
A gripping companion piece to the Oscar-nominated 2002 gangster masterpiece "City of God," it follows childhood friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), both grappling with complex parenthood issues as they turn 18. Ace already has a son in diapers, while Wallace is obsessed with tracking down the father he has never known.
Ace's wife, Cristiane (Camila Monteiro), must move to Sao Paulo to keep her job as a maid and nanny, forcing Ace to care for toddler Clayton on his own. As we see in an anxious sequence when he loses track of the boy on Copacabana beach, Ace is dealing with responsibilities far beyond his maturity level.
The boys' makeshift family ties are entwined with gang politics. Their rat's warren neighborhood is controlled by Wallace's surly, violent cousin Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen), who likes to sunbathe with several pistols tucked into his swim trunks. When Midnight's second-in-command Nefasto (Eduardo BR) tries to oust him, Wallace and Ace are trapped in a gang war with life-and-death choices to make.
Director Paulo Morelli, whose perfectly proportioned frames could locate beauty in a pigpen, keeps the story's violence mostly offscreen and in long shots. He invokes the ominous atmosphere of a city under martial law — the rattle of metal shutters slamming down when gunshots ring out, the police sirens, eerie abnormal silences and random, chaotic terror.
Although it doesn't equal the nerve-jangling visual energy and machine-gun velocity of its predecessor, "City of Men" is compulsively watchable, digging deep into its young characters' private dilemmas and fleshing them out as individual personalities. You never get the sense that you're watching a report on the degradation of youth in urban Brazil. The focus is what the title promises: men, not in the broad sense of humanity, but as packs, sons, fathers, brothers and brothers-in-arms, all related in one big, lethally dysfunctional family.
Silva and Cunha are faultless as the good-hearted but troubled adolescents; they grew up on camera playing Ace and Wallace on a Brazilian TV series about slum life, and they play the demanding roles again here with dignity and grace.
There are passages of surprising subtlety and emotional sophistication. When Wallace locates his father (Rodrigo dos Santos), who has just completed a 15-year prison term for manslaughter, and attempts to fashion a relationship with this wary stranger, Morelli conveys the nervousness behind this difficult reunion, as well as the compassion behind the father's guarded, masculine reserve.
The film's final image of flawed father figures trying to care for a little boy offers a glimmer of hope but no false uplift. That's enough.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times