“City of God” blasted viewers’ heads off in 2002, convincing crime fans that the genre hadn’t ended with “Goodfellas” and “Pulp Fiction.” Fernando Meirelles pulled off a minor miracle, taking a depressing story about parent-less Brazilian youths spinning off into anarchy, and turning it into a strangely invigorating tour de force. Meirelles kick-started his manic movie with a brilliant set-piece involving an agile chicken zigging and zagging through dusty favela streets, with hungry humans in hot pursuit. The filmmaking is so enthusiastic that we’re willing to wade through these sad slums from Hell – full of rootless tykes, who kill, rob, and stage brutal gang wars. At a more sluggish pace, the world of “City of God” would be unbearable.
Perhaps sensing this, filmmaker Paulo Morelli has directed “City of Men,” a sequel to Meirelles’ classic, in a style that abandons “ooh, wow” pyrotechnics for a less frenetic pace. This time around, the vibe is more relaxed and naturalistic. “City of God” spawned a successful Brazilian television series that ran for several seasons, and featured many of the same locations and cast members. Thus, the whole favela (“slum”) mythology now seems more familiar and lived-in than it did in Meirelles’ shockingly fresh original. Some might perceive “City of Men” as a slow film, while others could reasonably argue that Morelli is taking more time to develop characters.
At the heart of Morelli’s distinct take on this city are two young adolescent friends, Ace (Douglas Silva, whom viewers of “City of God” will remember as the vicious Li’l Dice, now playing a different character) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha, who also appeared in the original film and television series). Still kids themselves, both embrace the free-spirited irresponsibility of youth while grudgingly accepting the impending reality of adulthood.
Ace, for instance, is married to Cris (Camila Monteiro) and father to Clayton, his toddler son. With cherubic cheeks and big-toothed smile, Ace is an energetic, enthusiastic dad. However, when we observe this father-in-training carelessly leaving his young tot on a crowded Brazilian beach, we sense that he’s still very green in the parenting game. Eventually, Cris leaves the favelas for a temporary job that she hopes will allow the family to buy a house. Consequently, Ace must hold a job and act as primary provider for Clayton.
On a parallel story strand, Wallace anticipates his eighteenth birthday and eligibility for an ID card. The card becomes a kind of metaphor for Wallace’s lonely search for family. Still living with his mother, the teen yearns for connection with his long-imprisoned father, Heraldo (Rodrigos dos Santos). The film’s middle section acts as an emotional core of the film, with Wallace and Heraldo gradually warming up to each other. When a suspicious, stone-faced Heraldo is reluctant to let Wallace into his fleabag flat, the desperate son asks to use his bathroom. Once there, Wallace runs water and sighs – with no sign of bladder urgency – in elation. It’s the seedy apartment of a felon father, but to him, it’s better than Disneyland.
“City of Men” picks up momentum while introducing us to a nest of testosterone-fueled gangs, and the tired logistical war games they play. In a kind of Uzi-generated, unending round of musical chairs, these macho tribes claim key “hills” throughout the favela kingdoms, before relinquishing the prized real-estate to more brutal aggressors. As one gang takes over from another, the slums become an angry beehive, with armed teens darting through streets and the crackle of AK-47’s piercing the smoky air. History is doomed to repeat itself, as young fathers are riddled with lead and mowed down by machine guns. Meanwhile, the ties that bind Ace and Wallace are threatened by an unwelcome secret from the past.