City of Men has a lot in common with 2002’s Oscar-nominated City of God—the same producers, the same stars, practically the same title. But it’s not a sequel. Rather, it’s being promoted as a “companion piece” to the earlier film and the Brazilian TV show it inspired. Regardless, City of Men takes another look at the dark side of life in the favelas (shantytowns) of Rio de Janeiro, a violent above-ground underground not all that far removed from the pretty beaches overflowing with tourists.
Whereas City of God was frenetic and felt like a punch to the gut, Paulo Morelli’s film follows a more traditional and relatable narrative. The story focuses on best friends Ace and Wallace (Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha, both also in God) as they face turning 18 and the adulthood that allegedly follows. But the pair have already been given a taste of it: Ace, whose father was killed, is married and has a son because he and his then-girlfriend couldn’t afford an abortion. And Wallace automatically became the man of his household, if in only the shallowest way, when the father he never knew got sent to jail for murder. As Ace deals with the very real possibility that his wife, Cristiane (Camila Monteiro), is going to leave him with their boy so she can spend a year working in another city and Wallace tracks down his dad, they both try to avoid their neighborhood’s gang wars. That’s no easy feat: Nearly all of their peers chose to spend their adolescence learning about guns.
Morelli—who shares a story credit with Elena Soárez, who wrote the script—loads the film’s beginning with lots of sometimes-awkward exposition for the benefit of those who haven’t seen how the TV show tweaked City of God. A lot of characters are thrown at you right away, but it doesn’t take long for them to develop into unique and sympathetic individuals. Against Rio’s blue-skied, sandy-coast background, violence is the overwhelming and viscerally unsettling theme, with gang battles resulting in sickening and seemingly thoughtless loss of life. But the story’s subtext is what leads kids to such aggression—and not unlike many of the film’s less-developed Hollywood counterparts, the film places significant blame on paternal absence specifically and poor parenting in general. Wallace is often the voice of this message, frequently asking Ace if he wants his son to grow up like they did whenever the young dad is negligent (in one heartbreaking scene, he forgets his terrified boy at the beach) or moans about having to take care of him.
City of Men’s title is clearly meant to be ironic—these are just boys who want to run around on their scooters and buy CDs and flirt with girls. But the realities they deal with—guns, poverty, parenting—are much more grown up than they are, and it’s a tough life to escape. After all the story’s tension, the film does end on a note of hope—a relief to both the characters and audience members who likely spent its running time gripping their armrests, with anxious stomachs.