Friday, February 29, 2008

City of Men

While the Cristo Redentor physically looks down over Rio de Janeiro, it might seem at times as though no higher power watches over the city. Last year, Jason Kohn’s documentary Manda Bala captured bizarre and disturbing of a city which had all but surrendered to street crime. City of Men (trailer here), the latest installment of producer Fernando Meirelles’ hyper-realistic series on life in Brazilian shanty-towns, paints a more personal portrait, depicting an even starker reality for the children of Rio.

Following the previous film City of God and the Brazilian television series also titled City of Men, the film picks up on the lives of Ace and Wallace as they come of age in the favela shanty on Dead End Hill. Do not confuse them with the Dead End Kids or the Bowery Boys. Coming of age on their Hill involves dodging gunfire more than maturing emotionally. That they have nearly lived to see their eighteenth birthdays as the film opens is no small feat.

Life is cheap on Dead End Hill and becoming ever more so thanks to an erupting gang war. Ace and Wallace have been able to maintain a neutral non-combatant status, but the complex web of personal relationships on the Hill threatens to draw them into the conflict.

Kids die in this film. As a result it might be disturbing viewing for some parents. However, the film actually has much to say about parenting, as Ace comes to grips with fatherhood (almost certainly prematurely), while Wallace sets out to find his long absent, ex-convict father.

Tragedy begets tragedy in City of Men, as the cycle of violence threatens take on Shakespearean dimensions, with the sins of the fathers intruding into the lives of their sons. Yet despite the apparent nihilism of life on Dead End Hill, there is very definitely a moral center to the film. Indeed, it is aptly titled, as it explicitly addresses the responsibilities of fatherhood and manhood.

Although the stories of Men and God are fictional, the actors came from Rio’s favelas. One might argue Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Ace and Wallace respectively, are simply playing themselves, but they both exhibit a dynamic screen presence. Director Paulo Mirelli, a veteran of the television incarnation, has a compelling visual sense, aided and abetted by composer Antonio Pinto’s gentle Brazilian rhythms, often sounding eerily anachronistic over the landscape of urban violence and blight.

City of Men might be too raw for some viewers in its brutal depictions of teens and even pre-teens engaged in stone cold killing. By now, you probably have a good idea if this is a film for you. It is intense and gripping—highly recommended to those who would not be deterred by the prospect of some very realistic street violence, because that bloodshed serves an artistic purpose. It opens today in New York at the Angelika.