A fascinating portrait of two boys growing up in a favela, or slum, of Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian television miniseries City of Men reveals a slice of life rarely seen in North American mass media. The program, which aired for four seasons beginning in 2002 and drew an estimated 35 million viewers, depicts a world of poverty without condescending to, or caricaturing, its subject.
Although based on Fernando Meirelles' 2002 masterpiece, City of God -- Meirelles is one of the show's creators and directed several episodes -- the TV series involves different characters altogether. Our protagonists are friends Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), whom we first meet as 13 year olds. Acerola is creative, energetic and a bit of a dreamer; Laranjinha, while a self-styled Lothario, tends to be more pensive. The show reveals an amazing breadth of emotions and concerns. The boys' experiences range from carefree high jinks ("Saturday") to more somber stories in which they must maneuver their way through rough shantytowns ruled by machinegun-toting drug runners ("Can't Screw Up Twice").
Along the way, City of Men deftly explores plenty of weighty issues. Acerola and his young girlfriend, Cristiane (Camila Monteiro), end up having a baby boy. It is an unexpected development made all the more poignant because Laranjinha pines for a father he never knew. Acerola and Laranjinha are likable, but not one-note. After all, they are teenagers prone to all the selfishness and immaturity that can entail. When Acerola's older sister begins dating one of the favela's gangsters, for instance, the boy tries to salvage the crumbling romance because it has elevated his own standing among the other kids.
The series features an eye-popping visual style, using a diversity of film stocks for fast-paced, shambling narratives that zigzag from gritty realism to flights of fancy. Episodes frequently shift from the humorous to deadly serious, and often with inventive tangents that run the gamut from drawings coming to life on notebook paper to documentary-like asides in which real people relate their real stories. Split screens, freeze-frames, handheld camerawork -- you name it, City of Men revels in an artistic freedom that serves as an ironic contrast to the limited options of Acerola and Laranjinha.
The episodes are as follows:
"The Emperor's Crown"
"The Man's Brother-in-Law"
"Uólace and João Victor"
"Two Tickets to Brasilia"
"It's Gotta Be Now"
"Didn't Mean To"
"Can't Screw Up Twice"
"Hip Sampa Hop"
"Father & Son"
"Too Much Month"
"Looks Can Lie"
"Somewhere in the Future"
The series' 19 episodes are spaced out on three DVDs handsomely stored in a Digipak.
The episodes, presented in full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio, are sharp and clear, with realistic skin tones and an impressive array of color schemes. Still, viewers are advised to remember that the show sometimes incorporates video with several types of film.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Portuguese audio track is first-rate quality, with no discernible distortion or drop-off. While the track isn't particularly adventurous, it's certainly good enough for the series' wonderful, samba-saturated musical score. One bummer: English subtitles are bordered in black, but are often difficult to read when superimposed on white backgrounds.
Sadly, there's not a wisp of supplemental material to be found.
Ambitious and dazzling, City of Men introduces viewers to a world of humor, humanity and pathos. It is a place rarely seen in Hollywoodized entertainment, where a shantytown would either be a place of abject cruelty or sentimental pap. The writers and directors behind City of Men seem less interested in pushing an agenda – and, in so doing, they have created a television series of rare power and intelligence.