From the dawning moments of its release, Paulo Morelli's City of Men has suffered by inevitable comparisons to its nominal predecessor, 2002's captivating and startlingly inventive City of God. The comparisons stem from the fact that City of Men was produced by City of God director Fernando Meirelles, and that both films are staged in the poverty-stricken, gang-infested favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
For whatever reason, the formidably talented Meirelles—his 2005 production The Constant Gardener affirmed that his artistic vision and stylistic grace as a director have few equals in today's cinema—chose the seemingly unexceptional Morelli to helm the latest City pic. A journeyman former PR hack, Morelli's tepid resumé includes mostly television, some shorts, and only a couple of ill-regarded full-length features.
Consequently, City of Men has none of the verve or crackling originality of its predecessor. But that's not to say that Men doesn't have significant virtues of its own, worthy of your consideration. They are quieter, less expansive virtues, to be sure, yet more than sufficient to rate City of Men as an emotionally affecting entertainment, as well as (in somewhat jagged spurts) a viscerally compelling one.
Based on Meirelles' 19-episode Brazilian TV miniseries of the same name, City of God set its focus on the enduring friendship of two amiable, mostly innocent Rio teens coming of age on the notoriously violent, gang-ruled favela known as Dead End Hill. Slight, light-skinned Wallace (Darlan Cunha) was an earnest, unflappable youth whose sunny demeanor was darkened only now and then by the resurfacing of his lifelong yearning to find the father he never knew. Stocky, coal-complected Ace (Douglas Silva) was a slightly oafish but generally lovable 18-year-old layabout, fallen, for want of a prophylactic, into the roles of husband and father, for which he was woefully ill-suited.
As was the case in City of God, the threat of eruptive street-gang violence looms persistently in the stifling-hot sub-tropical air of City of Men. Ace's cousin Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen) is leader of the dope-peddling outlaw band that rules the roost on Dead End Hill, and his falling out with disgruntled toady Fasto (Eduardo "BR" Piranha) proves potentially lethal for both Ace and Wallace (as well as most of their friends and family living on the Hill).
But whereas City of God was at least one part hipster cultural document—Meirelles used witty narrative discourses, time-lapse and quick-cut flashback sequences, and other colorful film-geek digressive techniques to illuminate the hard-scrabble milieu that is the impoverished Brazilian favela—Morelli's film is more concerned with the human element of its story. This plaintively familiar tale of fatherless young men and the special cross they bear might just as well have been recast and set anywhere.
The harsh truths of the Third World ghetto are merely one more plot device—a means by which to test the bonds of friendship forged between Ace and Wallace when the shooting starts and loved ones scream and dangerous, volatile men are sparked into frenzies of rage and unhinged malice. And when strange, cruel ironies pile one atop the other, such that the two protagonists find themselves inexplicably set at odds by fates they could neither name nor understand.
Amidst the turmoil of escalating street-gang melees, Wallace finally finds his father—Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos), an ex-con just paroled after serving 15 years for his part in a major bank heist. Slowly, Heraldo begins to embrace the notion of getting to know his forgotten son. But their newfound connection signals the onset of a rift between the two boyhood pals, a rift born of circumstances both foreseeable and unexpected.
Even with the constant threat of violence at hand, there are moments when City of Men drags; it lacks the quick-fire, irascible wit scripted into its predecessor, an infusion that kept the film moving briskly from opening credits to finish.
Where it trumps the foregoing City of God is in the sincerity and the palpable humanity of its principles—in particular Ace and Wallace (Silva and Cunha), and Heraldo (dos Santos). One Internet critic referred to Silva and Cunha as "natural actors," and there's a great deal of truth there, in that both performers have an unaffected air about them that contrasts the very fact of their performing. If the final credits revealed that Silva and Cunha were simply plucked off the streets of Rio and pressed into service on a whim once Morelli's crew was set and the cameras started rolling, we could almost believe them.
But what of it? City of God and City of Men are different films, no matter the fact of their production-related and thematic connections, or the fact that nearly every critic that has screened them (including this one) seems compelled to make weighty pronouncements regarding their relative merits and the directorial balance of power. City of Men stands on its own as a fine film, and Paulo Morelli's directorial filmography looks a damned sight more impressive than it did this time last year.