x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

City of Men

This strutting, gun-toting, rat-a-tat-tat narrative takes daring diversions into emotionally heftier plot lines.

Childhood friends in the lawless shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro find themselves on opposite sides of a gang war in Paulo Morelli's <i>City of Men</i>.
Childhood friends in the lawless shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro find themselves on opposite sides of a gang war in Paulo Morelli's City of Men.

It is a wonderful thing that City of Men's most striking moment is also one of its most restrained. Ace (Douglas Silva), who at 18 is not a boy and not yet a man, confesses his fear of fatherhood, unprepared as he is to care for his baby son while his wife, Cris (Camila Monteiro), leaves for São Paulo in search of work. Elena Soárez positions the emotional heart of her screenplay at a curious disjuncture: punky favela gangstas, like anyone else (shock horror!), may be affected by the legacies of fathers who abandon their responsibilities.

That this strutting, gun-toting, rat-a-tat-tat narrative, based on an original story by the director Paulo Morelli, takes such daring diversions from its circuitous tour of Rio de Janeiro's lawless shantytowns into lighter but emotionally heftier plot lines is why this spin-off deserves its distinction - and why it may linger longer in people's minds than the arthouse megahit that launched it and a thousand other ships: Fernando Meirelles' Oscar-nominated City of God.

Apart from its location work, however, City of Men doesn't much concern itself with that 2002 feature - a good thing - even though its lead actors had roles in it. This is more of a companion piece that just happens to peddle the same slums and, reportedly, actors plucked from those slums.

So it goes that, growing up in a place where violence dictates all, life is cheap and death even cheaper, Ace and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) have grown as close as brothers. Both boys now teeter on the brink of manhood - which, by this film's standards, is a real abyss. Both boys also never knew their fathers. Laranjinha sets out to find his, partly because he needs his signature to secure an ID card, but mostly because he craves an actual identity. Meanwhile, Ace struggles to raise his own son (typified here by a game of hot potato-baby). When the friends, quite suddenly, find themselves on opposing sides of a gang war, a secret from their shared past surfaces. When this finale finally comes, we already know its outcome off by heart.

Yes, the storyline follows a sudsy, soap-operatic formula; too heavy with messages and contrivances to sit comfortably with its subject matter and shooting style. But City of Men's version of the Boyz n the Hood tragedy has a full enough repertoire of grace notes to keep it from sliding into banality. A young couple shares an iPod in the rain, the composer Antonio Pinto's characteristically seductive guitar strums swelling out into the score. A teenage father, too nervous to cradle his just-born son, gives into his tears and fears as he takes the baby into his arms. Atop a Rio peak, a warlord surveys all that he now commands after a slum-wide shooting spree.

In these moments, City of Men is a moving, involving, even vital fiction. But given the high density of sophisticated emotional traffic that runs through the film, it's a crying shame that Morelli options such an uninspired, lazy palette of visual motifs to translate his Brazilian take on Fathers and Sons. His cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, is a relative rookie - and it shows. The loose, impressionistic camerawork that made City of God seem like a definitive statement is sold here as a sort of favela-chic film accessory. Shallow focus photography and fashion magazine-spread sweat-sheen, over-saturated colouring and overexposed lighting, a camera that takes aim like a gun and cutting that is as rapid-fire as bullets - all claim to reveal the electric torpor of the Rio ghettos. Instead, they do nothing more than make the film seem like an overeager travelogue of a place we've seen many times before - and which I'm not sure we needed to revisit.

In these moments, I wondered what happened to the plight of fatherless boys in a blighted place stumbling to teach themselves what it means to be a man. There was something heartbreaking in that.