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Growing Wild

Another Visit to Brazilís Slums Tries to Show How Gun-Toting Boys Become Men

Just Looking: Jonathan Haagensen (center) ponders his future.

By Steve Erickson | Posted 2/27/2008

City of Men

Directed by Paulo Morelli

Opens Feb. 29 at the Charles Theatre

Officially, City of Men isnít a sequel to Fernando Meirellesí enormously popular City of God; instead, itís a ďfollow-up.Ē In reality, itís a humanist remake, attempting to show how ordinary, decent people can get caught up in the crime and gangs in poor neighborhoods--itís easier to defend but less pleasurable to watch. City of God used violence as a springboard for excitingly harrowing set pieces, while City of Menís first shooting takes place off-screen. It plays as though director Paulo Morelli had kept City of Godís many critics in mind while making his own vision of Brazilís favelas.

As critic Jim Ridley observed, City of God is the kind of foreign movie that can serve as a gateway for Americans with a fear of subtitles. Despite the distant setting, itís no more arcane than the Notorious B.I.G. or GoodFellas. Its success provoked a fierce backlash, much of it responding to Meirellesí gushing bloodshed. Most memorably, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis contemptuously described the movieís treatment of violence as ďgiggly.Ē

Men revolves around two teens who are just about to turn 18. Ace (Douglas Silva) is already a father, while Wallace (Darlan Cunha) is obsessed with finding the father he has never known. Wallace and Ace live in a hillside slum of Rio de Janeiro. Their hill is controlled by Wallaceís cousin Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen). Aceís wife, Cristiane (Camila Monteiro), plans to move to Sao Paulo for a job that will pay $30,000 a year, but she intends to leave behind their son Clayton, forcing Ace to be a single dad temporarily. Meanwhile, Wallace tracks down his father, who has just been released after a 15-year manslaughter stint in prison.

City of Men balances you-are-there immediacy with a tendency to aestheticize the favela. Morelli doesnít make it prettier but enhances the movieís grain and bleaches its colors. Without avoiding violence, he doesnít dwell on it the way Meirelles did. Many shots are fired in Men, but they usually hit their targets discreetly; the movie shows little blood. Still, it gets a narrative jolt from moments of violenceóMen's rhythms rely on a constant pulse of danger underlying everyday life. Scenes like the one in which a large group of favela dwellers take cover in a closed shop while machine-gun fire rages outside only bring to the surface a tension running through almost every scene.

And the title is deliberate: Men is a movie about masculinity and paternity, albeit the product of a female screenwriter. It is obsessed with absent fathers, whom it views as the root of urban Brazilís problems. According to the film, teenage boys who have grown up without male role models will look up to local drug dealers and turn to a life of crime. This is not an uncommon perspective--it was expressed in John Singletonís Boyz N the Hood--but itís a simplistic one, lacking any broader political insights into poverty.

The fathers in City of Men are missing because theyíre the perpetrators or the victims of violence, not because they wanted to abandon their children. Is crime the chicken or the egg in this scenario? On this point, Men seems confused. While damning absent fathers, the movie doesnít exactly celebrate mothersí strength. Cristiane comes off as an irresponsible materialist, and the rest of the movieís women are barely present. In the movieís final scenes, Ace and Wallace look like a gay couple as they walk hand in hand with Clayton near the seaside. Elsewhere, their friendship doesnít carry an overt erotic charge, but theyíre far closer to each other than to the women in their lives.

At its smartest, City of Men suggests that Brazil is one big dysfunctional family and points out that simply being a father doesnít make you a good one; a final plot twist about Ace and Wallaceís fathers recalls Greek tragedy. Yet it ends on an upbeat note, celebrating family values as a sure cure for the traps of crime and poverty. You wish the reconciliation and hope promised by City of Men could extend to the entire favela, but touting fatherhood alone isnít likely to do it.

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Tags: city of men. city of god, favela, brazil

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