‘City’ of lost children

Rio’s not all supermodels and Carnival you know. And just in case City of God didn’t make that clear, here comes City of Men, the movie of the Brazilian television-series spinoff of God to make things clear.

I’m not going to lie: I only saw City of God maybe six months ago because I remembered that a man of good taste had, like, lurved it. Onto my Netflix queue it went. Now, I know a beautifully crafted episodic picture when I see one, but I can’t say that afterward I was salivating for More Sad Things That Happen in Brazilian Slums. The heart can only bear so much.

For those who watched Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) and Acerola (Douglas Silva) grow from 13-year-olds into adulthood on TV’s City of Men, I imagine your experience of the film will be quite different than mine. Maybe your hearts will want to bear a two-hour timeline of events. You can fill in the blanks, after all. For me, City of Men was unclear and impenetrable. I knew nothing of the boys’ likes and dislikes or lives; no mood-setting shots or music were offered to draw me in. (We know that it is hot because everyone’s skin glitters, as it did in City of God.) By the end, I had come to a conclusion I didn’t feel I’d earned because I’d only connected the dots — not thought or cared. I hadn’t been on a journey.

Now you’d think that any reasonable person would start to care at the moment Acerola (“Ace”), 18, mounts a motorbike with his baby in arms, rather early on in the film. But this scene just establishes him as a flawed father, like his own dad and like Laranjinha’s (although neither of them know it yet). In the midst of a gang war, the best friends set out to find Laranjinha’s father in time for his 18th birthday so his ID won’t read “bastard.” Connect dots one, two, and three.

Although the filmmakers attempt to catch up the uninitiated with flashbacks from the television series, I wish they had spent more time clearing up the story at hand. And why, for instance, didn’t they choose to explain some of the gang leaders’ murderous motivations instead of informing us through blurry, made-for-cable-like sequences that Ace had a consequence-free extramarital affair?

The thing plays like a condensed miniseries or an extended TV episode, with whiteout transitions and all. Scenes of gangsters marching — always, for some reason, down stairwells — are given too much prominence. Indeed, it can be said that City of Men’s scenes can be separated into two categories: gangsters marching, and everything else.

Ultimately, if the phrase “spin-off of City of God” piques your interest, you would be better served to get your hands on the complete television series City of Men, and then watch this film. But temper your expectations: this one’s short of the glory of God.

City of Men
Dir. Paulo Morelli, writ. Elena Soanez; feat. Darlan Cunha, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen (NR)

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