Monday, February 25, 2008

Boys to Men: Cidade dos Homens

Dead End Hill, the rather in- auspiciously named favela that provides the setting for much of City of Men, is a ram- shackle maze of post-urban life where anarchy and violence are indistinguishable from the banalities of everyday existence. In this grimly alluring slum of Rio de Janeiro, a city that still resembles some seaside paradise if you squint a little and regard it from a safe distance, violent death is at once terrifyingly unpredictable and a visitor so regular as to deserve its own table setting. In one of City of Men’s many memorable scenes, a conversation between two men is interrupted by the sounding of a single gunshot somewhere nearby. The men look at each other and pause for just a moment, as though waiting for more, before one matter-of-factly says the other, “One less.”

This scene gives the impression that City of Men, a sequel of sorts to Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 film City of God, as well as a feature-length follow-up to the Brazilian television series of the same name, is a film corroded with cynicism. Yet City of Men, while plunging the viewer into an infernal milieu –one representative of the sort that more and more of the world is sliding toward– finally employs despair and chaos as a method of putting the persistence of hope in greater relief. City of God drew much of its abundant exhilaration and grotesquerie from the fact that the vicious gangsters inhabiting its streets were mostly still kids; in City of Men, which Meirelles co-produced, the boys that survived the previous film are now growing into adults, and, while plagued with even more cause for resignation or madness, some of them endeavour to forge new lives for themselves and the families they’re already beginning to create. The final scene elegantly evokes their baby steps toward a brighter future.

In a rapid, rhythmical sequence of cross-cuts that set the tone for what’s to come, the story opens, somewhat confusingly at first, by introducing Dead End Hill’s dominant, heavily-armed gang, led by the Madrugadão (Jonathan Haagensen, whose deep, puffy eyes and broad face mirror the brooding handsomeness of Benicio Del Toro), and two pals each on the cusp of official manhood, the charming, thick-bodied Ace and the boyishly handsome, more innocent Wallace (Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha, both of whom played roles in City of God). Ace already has a wife and son he feels far from ready for. So oblivious to parental obligation is Ace that he actually leaves his toddler son at the beach. Wallace meanwhile searches for his own father, a man sufficiently disreputable for Wallace’s family to refuse to provide even his first name.

Co-written by director Paolo Morelli, who helmed several episodes of the series, and Elena Soarez, the film is as smartly informed by the burdens and legacies of fathers and sons as Soarez’s script for House of Sand was by the innate links between mothers and daughters. Around the same time that gang warfare breaks out in Dead End Hill, approximately half-way through the story, Wallace tracks down his dad begins a tentative relationship, one soon fraught with the revelations of his dad’s blood-soaked past and ongoing criminal activities. In a plot twist that effectively echoes classical myth, the father’s history of violence runs concurrent with that of Ace’s father, and the lifelong friends become the inheritors of a shared past of horror and tragic folly, events whose consequences threaten to determine their own futures darkly.

Not unlike the density of domiciles crammed into the hillside slum, City of Men crams an awful lot of narrative into 110 minutes, yet it does so fluidly, and often thrillingly, with a masterful interweaving of flashbacks that flesh out the present and sometimes intriguingly contradict the spoken testaments given by those who lived through the past. Morelli doesn’t infuse the film with quite the same level of stylistic flourish that Meirelles brought to City of God, but he comes pretty close, particularly in the way his camerawork conveys a striking sense of the Hill’s vertical labyrinth. What’s more, Morelli is telling a story that, with all due respect to City of God, greatly surpasses its predecessor in sheer heart. In tracing the geometries of genes, family names, and social determinism, City of Men builds to a tremendously moving series of climaxes. It might be too much to expect a third film in this cycle to be as great, but I’d be more than happy to see them give it a whirl.

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