March 1, 2008

REVIEW: City of Men (A)

Background: Alone on an otherwise uneventful Thursday night in January of 2003, I caught the last showing of Fernando Meirelles' Cidade de Deus (City of God) at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA. Walking out, in a daze, I declined the theater employee's offer for the film's poster hanging outside the door, but I knew in the days after that I'd seen what would probably be one of my favorite movies - ever. People stared blankly at me when I tried to pronounce the title, and I didn't hear anything about City of God for over a year, until it was rereleased nationwide in February of 2004 (when I saw it twice more) and nominated for 4 Oscars, none of which it won (LOTR: The Return of the King swallowed 3 of the 4). In the buzz following its success, a television series was spun off: "Cidade dos Homens (City of Men)," starring Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha. Both Silva (who played the shockingly evil Li'l Ze in City of God) and Cunha ("Steak and Fries" in God) are featured in the film adaptation of the TV series, so City of Men is thus not really a sequel to City of God so much as it is a companion piece; the film spun off the show with the same actors that spun off a different film with the same actors. This time around Meirelles only has a production credit, while the directing reins are handed off to Paulo Morelli - who also has a cameo as Silva's boss in the film. Set again in Rio's favelas, City of Men was filmed entirely on location, so much so that you won't believe what you're seeing. I don't know if as many locals were used in the production this time around, but to call City of Men inauthentic would be ridiculous.

Synopsis: Ace (Silva) and Wallace (Cunha) are best friends living on Dead End Hill in one of the many favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro. The boys, both turning 18, struggle with their transition to adulthood. Ace has a young son and a troubled marriage, while Wallace buzzes around on his scooter and longs for a father he's never known. Both boys are parentless but self-sufficient, independent but immature. The gang boss of Dead End Hill (and thus the most important person in the community, political or otherwise) is Wallace's cousin, Midnight, whose second-in-command, Fasto, betrays Midnight and sets off a terrifying turf war between rival gangs. In the midst of daylight shootings and homes set afire, Ace and Wallace see their relationship torn apart by contrasting allegiances. When Midnight loses Dead End Hill, Wallace is banished from the community as well, while Ace is a target because of a deadly rumor that pits him against Wallace's girlfriend's brother - who is also Fasto's confidant. To make things more complicated, Ace has helped Wallace locate his father, who has more to share about the boys' past than either of them are ready for. Touching scenes and joyful moments are interrupted by shootouts and a gripping sense of dread about when revenge is coming. By the end, you're shaking your head with the thought of people continuing to live like this in so many places around the globe.

I Loved:
+ Every technical aspect: lighting, sound, cinematography, music, color, editing, and "production design" (is there any? There's really no "set," costumes, visual effects, etc., which makes it all the more realistic.)
+ Seeing the two leads, Silva and Cunha, growing up before your eyes in footage from the television series. Their acting was terrific as well.
+ Cinematographer Adriano Goldman's soaring, sweeping panoramic shots of Rio's favelas. - their proximity to the touristy beaches is incredible.
+ Composer Antonio Pinto's stimulating soundtrack.

I Liked:
+ The deeply moving final scene and narration.
+ The understated violence - it's a major part of the story, but it's not the focus and it's not sensationalized.
+ Ah, Portuguese. Beautiful even when spoken by gangsters.

I Disliked:
- That the plot so quickly devolved into a turf war.
- What on the surface appear to be convenient coincidences (though in a community like that you can't call them unlikely).

I Hated:
- Nothing.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 47/50= 94% = A

Last Word: I don't want to get into comparing City of Men and City of God too much because a.) they're not part of the same story, and b.) I think each film can stand on its own merit. That being said, if you go into City of Men expecting it to be City of God, you will be disappointed. It's not as good, but it's still excellent in its own way, and had you never seen City of God you would be blown away by this. While the stories are gripping and offer profound insights into favela life, the most striking element in both movies is the seamless way in which fiction blends with reality. It's a surreal experience - the stories are real, but the films aren't documentaries; the locations and people are existing in their natural form, but the actors are portraying characters. You know that everything is real, but none of it is. You just feel so...there. (Granted, I've never been to Rio or its favelas, and I know you could have said the same thing about Boyz in the Hood being filmed in Inglewood, but I contend this is different.) I've already seen City of Men criticized because its plot is less "hyperaction" and more "coming-of-age," but I think that's exactly what makes it unique enough to separate itself from God. The final lesson is chilling and will no doubt be overlooked by action-hungry sequel seekers, but if you're like me and are interested in the hard truth behind these stories, do not miss 2005's La Sierra, a horrifying documentary about gangs in Medellin, Colombia. That will show you some things you've never seen before, and there's no acting involved (you might also enjoy last year's Manda Bala, which focuses on Sao Paolo). City of Men is another stylish, realer-than-real look at the hard life in Brazil's favelas, but it brings out a positive message that you can only hope will someday be learned.


  1. I was really curious about this one. I too saw City of God in January of 2003 in London, and didn't hear a peep about for nearly a year when I got back to the States. And I have the same feelings about it that you do.

    It's funny you mention Boyz in the Hood. I had told my mom about City of God and how fantastic it was. She saw it and said she saw the same story in Boyz in the Hood and liked it better than City of God. I still think she's a bit crazy.

    I was a bit skeptical about City of Men, but I may have to check it out one of these days.

  2. I haven't seen this yet so I can't read your review too carefully. Suffice it to say, I was on the fence about it, but you've convinced me I ought to have a look. Hopefully soon.

  3. I definitely think you should both check it out. Even if you're not as impressed as I was, it's still a great cultural experience, and the filmmaking technique is unique. Good to avoid like I avoid yours beforehand, Craig, hehe. Interested to hear what you think if you see it.

    Mrs. Thuro, the weird thing is that I didn't even think about Boyz in the Hood until I was writing the review. The favela seems so foreign that I never even thought about its "counterpart" back here. Ah well. I think your mom (who apparently has excellent taste) needs to take another look at City of God.

  4. Thanks for the review, Daniel ... I'm currently in the big city of Atlanta, away from my usual haunts in the wilds of Alabama (where they think an Art Film is about what happens when you eat too many beans), and I've got an evening off to see a flick. You've decided the issue for me. I'll post a review of it at my blog in a few days.

  5. Uh oh - the pressure's on now! Hope my recommendation works out, Rick, and I look forward to your review.

  6. I want to check it out too. I won the most random contest ever, and am now the proud owner of the City of Men poster, soundtrack and free tickets to see this film, so I am very much looking forward to it.

  7. Man, you and contests, Nick. Is this your lucky year or are you just the man?

  8. Daniel: I haven't seen this newer film, but like you I think CITY OF GOD is a masterpiece. I loved your lead-in, chronicling your numbness on the first viewing in Cambridge, and I likeyour style of rating the individual components.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Sam. Always nice to have LiC company over here, and I appreciate your feedback on my format. It's not perfect, but neither am I.

    Yes, City of God is easily one of the best films of the decade in my opinion. This spin-off can't live up to it, but as a stand-alone it's still impressive in my opinion. Has all of the same elements, but they just aren't as fresh or as tightly arranged as in God.


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