Miramax // 2007 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 18th, 2008
An unforgettable tale of friendship and survival in a city where the greatest challenge is growing up.
The cinematic follow-up to a television series spinoff of a cinematic film, City of Men is emotionally satisfying and dramatically compelling, but only for fans of the television show.
For longtime friends Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), their friendship has always been the one thing that keeps them alive. Growing up in the wild and dangerous slums of Rio de Janiero, where violence, poverty, and inequality are a way of life, most are lucky to make it into their twenties without being shot down by gangsters.
Fast friends since the age of 13, they are now about to turn 18 and their lives have taken some strange courses: Acerola is married with a child, but is still a kid at heart himself, and has no idea how to be a father, having never had one. Laranjinha can offer no assistance in this department, since he never had a father himself, and this eats him up inside.
Driven by curiosity and frustration, Laranjinha decides to track his father down and meet the man who abandoned him at birth. What he finds will change his understanding of his own life, as well as reveal shocking truths about his own friendship with Acerola. To make matters worse, Laranjinha's cousin Midnight, the current ruler of the hill in the ghetto, faces betrayal from his own ranks. Soon the neighborhood erupts in gunfire and violence, placing both boys in danger from all angles.
First thing that needs to be established immediately: this is not a sequel to Fernando Meirelles' (The Constant Gardener) critically acclaimed film City of God. It kind of looks like it at first glance, and the packaging almost suggests as much, but they are just trying to fool you, you innocent consumer.
Case in point, this is actually a full-length cinematic follow-up to the television spinoff of City of God, City of Men, which is set in the same favelas as City of God but features an entirely new cast of characters and people, and is only produced by Meirelles, not directed by. This is not splitting hairs, I assure you. City of Men: The Complete Series is absolutely required viewing. This film picks up right where the TV series left off, and you need to know Acerola and Laranjinha well to appreciate the twists and turns in the latest installment of their dramatic adventures; otherwise the film lacks any emotional impact whatsoever. That would be a bad thing indeed.
City of Men: The Complete Series followed Acerola and Laranjinha as they matured from 13-year-old children into 17-year-old adolescents, exploring maturity and masculinity in a city where most people barely made it into their twenties alive. Now, the boys are turning 18, making them men, except they have no idea what being men means.
Like City of God and City of Men: The Complete Series before it, the slums of Rio are jaw-dropping in their ethereal beauty and frightening in their disparity and violence. You could shoot 90 minutes of no dialogue in the favelas, just wander around and capture everything you see, and it would be a near-Oscar contender documentary. Nearly half the emotional impact of City of Men is in the sheer brutality of the location, of the constant violence surrounding the hill, where teenage gangsters slay each other mercilessly for control of what is essentially a gigantic junkyard. For Ace and Laranjinha, it is all they have ever known, and we have watched them grow up surrounded by the violence, the inequality, the confusion, and the degradation. Despite it all, it is home, and they are happy there -- everyone knows their names, they know every nook and cranny and back alley, they kissed their first girl there, and so on. City of Men throws both the boy's lives into chaos when events beyond their control spiral out and threaten to dislodge them from the favelas.
This is most likely the last time we will see either of the boys, and City of Men does its best to send them off proper. While the ending is left deliberately ambiguous, it offers a surprisingly optimistic outlook, given the admittedly grim surroundings that are their lives. Both are men now, and have to do that terrible thing that all young boys do, whether they want to or not: grow up. Both have the so-called advantage of seeing more trauma and heavy world stuff than most of us in North America would ever see in their lifetime, yet suffer from a total lack of parental influence. They have no parents, no father figures to show them what it means to be a man, except for the gun-toting thugs and gangsters who occupy the hill. For them, carrying a gun and dying young equates masculinity, and it is a deceptively seductive lie for young men in the favelas...one that has tempted both the boys on numerous occasions.
Admittedly, City of Men plays less like a cinematic film in its own right and more like the last two or three episodes of City of Men that the producers never got the chance to shoot. Clips and flashbacks from the television series are interjected throughout, reminding us of the incredible journey these two young boys have taken together. This is not a bad thing in of its own right, but it does rob the film of any possible appreciation by random onlookers. You really do need to have seen all the episodes of the television show to appreciate City of Men, and to have this caveat attached to a standalone film being is less than ideal.
City of Men received a pleasant production value bump compared to the television series -- we get proper widescreen anamorphic (beats the full frame!) with a hearty 5.1 surround presentation (in Brazilian Portuguese) with English and English SDH subtitles. Colors are oversaturated and dreamlike, with particularly vibrant yellows and greens. Black levels are grainy and muddled, in party due to the stylized cinematography. The directorial style has received a noticeable jumpstart as well, as if producers realized they needed to direct City of God like a theatrical film, not a television show. There are less handheld camera shots and more artful compositions of light and shadow, hallucinogenic close-ups, and sweaty skin shots. The end result is something that harkens to (but is not quite as awesome as) City of God, which is definitely a good thing.
Extras are disappointingly slim; all we get is a 15-minute "making of" featurette and some trailers. Miramax cheaped out on this one...the show deserved better.
As a cinematic sequel to City of God, City of Men falls short, mostly because it isn't one, so don't be fooled. That being said, do not discount it completely. As a follow-up and bookend to the City of Men TV series, the film is surprisingly satisfying. It nicely ties up some loose ends, and gives viewers a clear vision as to the kinds of men Ace and Laranjinha will become once the cameras stop rolling. Perhaps most importantly, it offers something truly valuable, hope and optimism, in a place where none exists.
A must-see for followers of the show. Everyone else can safely skip it.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Building a City Of Men"
* DVD Verdict Review - City Of Men: Complete Series