I was definitely unaccustomed to the sights and sounds of "City of Men" before I sat down to watch this motion picture. A kissing cousin to Fernando Meirelles's 2002 smash "City of God," "Men" is the big-screen finale to the Brazilian television series that ran for only 19 episodes from 2002-2005, hitting American shores on the coattails of "God," though the productions are dissimilar in a multitude of ways.
"Men" tracks the maturation of Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), two boys living in a violent Rio de Janeiro favela, trying to make ends meet. The series showcased their days in the slum: working through their growing pains, dealing with poverty, and trying to avoid the local drug-trafficking gangs that run the streets from their hilltop home bases. The film takes us to the boys' 18th birthdays, where manhood, once a distant dream in the face of constant reminders of mortality, is awaiting them with anguished consequences.
While "Men" never feels like a one-dimensional television show, the lack of a suitable pathway to these characters is perceptible during nearly every scene. I enjoyed "God," however the "Men" show eluded my personal media radar, and watching the big screen version of the program is like an exercise in playing tiring catch-up. Director Paulo Morelli attempts to meet newcomers halfway by layering in flashbacks to the show and direct exposition between the characters, exhibiting the lifelong bond between Acerola and Laranjinha as they literally grew up together over the run of the program. The particulars of the relationship are not clear, but the visual thumbprint of the bond is unmistakable and a crucial ingredient to appreciating what "Men" has to offer.
Other characters and situations (mostly sexual) are hustled in and out of the picture with less elegance, leaving patches of "Men" unavoidably distancing and bewildering. Thankfully, there's a strong story here, brimming with universal themes of adulthood, responsibility, and consequences of choice. "Men" is a bit of a soap opera, with Laranjinha confronting his absentee father and Acerola dealing with the duties of sudden parenthood, yet the reality of the experiences dramatized keep the material fresh and composed. Bursts of brutal gang violence also sober the picture up, as Morelli is quick to remind the viewer that these characters are constantly hounded by aggression, but afraid (or unable) to escape their home and find a better life.
It goes without saying that "City of Men" should appeal to devotees of the series. There's a level of assured filmmaking and lived-in performances here that could only be cultivated through years of development. For those like me, walking into a theater with only "God" in my back pocket, the experience might not be as sweet, but still remains artistically and emotionally rewarding.
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