At this point, I will watch any film that takes place in the Brazilian favelas, as long as Fernando Meirelles is involved. And I imagine that a lot of my peers would feel the same, if they would only see his latest, City of Men. After all, this is the man who in 2002 gave us City of God, which I've determined to be the second most popular contemporary foreign-language film for people of my generation (Amelie being the first). The film also thrust Meirelles into international acclaim and success, including an Oscar-nomination for Best Director, yet it wasn't his first time presenting a riveting story set in the Rio shantytowns.
In 2000, Meirelles and his City of God co-director, Kátia Lund, made a short film titled Palace II. It was something of a precursor to (and apparently a test-run for) City of God, and it was based on an excerpt from the same source novel, written by Paulo Lins. But narratively, it has nothing to do with the subsequent feature film. Palace II is actually set in the present -- City of God takes place in the '80s -- and follows two young friends, Wallace (nickname: "Laranjinha") and Luis Claudio (nickname: "Acerola"), who live in poverty in the favela.
Following that introductory installment, the two boys received their own television series, titled City of Men. It was produced by Meirelles, who also directed four of the 19 episodes, and it debuted in Brazil in 2002, a few months after the release of City of God. The hit show continued the adventures of Laranjinha and Acerola (again played by Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva, respectively) over four seasons, as they attempted to stay alive while also attempting to stay out of the criminal syndicate that rules over their neighborhood and which seems to recruit much of the local youths. When the last episode aired in late 2005, the characters were pondering their future and forthcoming manhood. Now, with this feature-length film spin-off, produced by Meirelles but directed by another of the series' directors, Paulo Morelli, we finally see Laranjinha and Acerola turn 18.
As the boys point out early in the film, the difference between rich kids and poor kids is that when rich kids turn 18 they get a car while when poor kids turn 18 they get a job. But with a job comes a work ID card, on which it's noted if you are fatherless. And, as has been dealt with throughout the series, Laranjinha has no idea who his dad is or was. Really, hardly does Acerola, who is now a father himself, and a pretty terrible one at that. In the first few minutes of the film he forgets about the toddler, abandoning him on the beach.
City of Men plays a lot with the issue of fathers and fatherhood, as the characters seek out information about their origins, and the main plot of the film stems from this universal yet highly dramatic theme. But the film also examines other prominent familial relationships in the favelas, from blood relatives to best friends to gang mates, and focuses on the difficulty of maintaining such bonds in such a tumultuous environment.
Though City of Men is far less violent and shocking than City of God, it does feature its share of action, mostly involving a gang war between two opposing favelas, which is predominantly fought in broad daylight. Of course Laranjinha and Acerola become tied up in the conflict -- it's near impossible not to be involved somehow when you live in a tight drug-lorded community and your cousin is a gangster or your girlfriends' brother is your enemy, or something to those effects -- and fitting with fraternal melodrama conventions, the boys eventually become estranged.
A great thing about the City of Men film is that it isn't necessary to watch the television series first. There are occasional flashbacks, which are pulled from the show, so if and when the story alludes to past events, those events are actually displayed. I hadn't seen any of the episodes prior to seeing the film (I've since watched the entire series) and had no problem following. In fact, I had no problem becoming quickly engrossed in the story. Similar to City of God, though on a slightly lesser scale, City of Men presents a plot that is equally tragic and exciting.
However, City of Men is neither as stylistically fresh nor as powerfully raw as City of God. And while it may seem unfair to keep comparing the two, especially since they are basically unified, it has to be addressed because otherwise Meirelles' fans may have too high expectations and could be disappointed. Meanwhile, fans of the series should be delighted to find the production value of the City of Men film to be greater than that of the show, and the story's scope and structure to be greater -- not that any followers of the series would want to miss the next step in the lives of these kids.
In a way, Meirelles' continued presentation of these favela stories allows for the Rio slums to appear celebrated and glorified, much like the comparable urban gangster films made in the U.S., only in a more hopeful light. It can't be argued that City of Men necessarily makes the favelas look like a nice place to live, but there is something fantastical about it due to the framing of the film. Although there are a few instances in which the film includes the main, mapped parts of Rio as part of the setting, the majority of City of Men highlights a few shantytown hills, showcasing them as though they were conflicting kingdoms in a sort of fairy tale land. In terms of representing the favelas as existing outside the reality of the normal, downtown, metropolitan life of the city, this dark fantasy is fascinating, but it also has a danger of distorting its actuality to non-Brazilian audiences.