In the Spring of 2006, the Sundance Channel garnered positive press for syndicating the Brazilian series, City of Men. The show was a follow-up project for the creative talents behind the critically-acclaimed 2002 feature film, City of God. Filmed primarily on location in a hillside shanty town (favela) of Rio de Janeiro, and using a cast composed mostly of novice and non-professional actors, the series began with a lot of promise. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to its potential, and continued on far too long.
Filmed between 2002 and 2005, City of God completed 19 half-hour episodes in four seasons. The series follows two favela residents, Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), from the age of 13 through 17. Acerola and Laranjinha are good kids who try to avoid trouble while living in a neighborhood that seems to be a cross between Lord of the Flies and Peanuts: young men reign through the judicious use of brutality while adults are ineffectual background characters.
The first three episodes of City of God are reminiscent of the best episodes of The Wire in their focus on a criminal gang entrenched in a poor neighborhood. Though the favela and gang are a continuing presence throughout the series, they never seem as potent in menace or possibility as they do in this first season. Acerola and Laranjinha flirt with becoming criminals, but ultimately reject that path. Unfortunately, the series begins to stumble as it moves away from its focus on the favela's gang.
While at times, City of Men continues to be a realistic drama about teens surrounded by crime and poverty, increasingly after season one the storylines become contrived and fantastical adventures across space and social class. For example, in season two, Acerola and Laranjinha travel on their own from Rio to Brasilia for a personal audience with Brazilian President Lula. Later in the same season, Acerola and Laranjinha undertake misadventures with a pair of rich Japanese boys chaperoned only by their street-smart chauffer. While these scenarios may, at times, be entertaining, they bare little in common with the gritty authenticity of City of God or the first three episodes of the series.
It was enjoyable to see Acerola and Laranjinha grow up and face some tough life challenges, but the constant barrage of contrived and unbelievable storylines put me off the series long before it ended. Nevertheless, I soldiered on to the end and was rewarded with a series finale so outlandish that I still can't believe they did it. Abandoning the fiction of Acerola and Laranjinha, the final episode concerns the principal actors, Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha looking back on their roles, imagining their characters' futures, and seeking new acting opportunities. Mixing in elements of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Monkey Dust, and half a dozen of Eddie Murphy's worst movies, this episode is an apt ending for a series that started off as a realistic crime drama with a positive social message, but that took a wrong turn early on and sped along to irrelevant absurdity.
I'm curious where the 2007 follow-up film, also entitled City of Men, falls on the continuum between gritty realism and absurdest fantasy.
Palm Pictures has provided the entire 570 minute series on three discs at a very reasonable price.
The subtitles are well translated and are easily readable despite the rapid pace necessary to keep up with the dialogue. Unfortunately, they are non-removable.