In 2002 Fernando Meirelles and Ktia Lund stunned us with the gorgeous, gritty luminosity of City of God, their astonishing movie about life in the desperate slums of Brazil. And then came the television series City of Men, developed for two incidental cast members, youngsters Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha, to star in. The series ran from 2002 to 2005 in Brazil (available here on DVD) and followed new characters Acerola (Silva) and Laranjinha (Cunha) as they grew into adulthood in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
As a TV show, City of Men made you feel as if you'd never seen television before. Meirelles and Lund reinvented the episodic series, sending their two young heroes soaring to near-mythic heights while never letting them entirely escape their grim reality. In a world dominated by drug lords and poor people, they struggled to sidestep gangs and the guns and to keep themselves amused and alive in a dangerous place. Not that the show was relentlessly grim a lively, ironic humor ran through it. The funny and poignant final episode, for instance, featured the two stars suddenly playing themselves, exploring the possibilities for future lives after the show.
But because my mind was blown by City of Men the series, I did not think it unfair to expect the same from City of Men the movie, which picks up with Acerola and Laranjinha (Americanized to Ace and Wallace in the subtitles) where the series left off. Both are now 18 years old and struggling to make their way as men in one of the toughest places on earth to grow up, and an even tougher place, it seems, to be an adult. In order to stay above the continuous fray of gang warfare one must remove oneself physically to a very distant place. Which is the path Ace's wife, Cris (Camila Monteiro), takes when she accepts a job in another city. It's a job that will pay more than she could ever earn in the slums, leaving Ace with their toddler son.
So, Ace is a husband and father before he has even learned how to be a man. He has missed watching his own father's example because his father was shot dead when he was small. Wallace has father issues of his own: he has just been reintroduced to the father he never knew, Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos), recently paroled from prison after serving 15 years for violent crimes.
But here we are with two boys transitioning into manhood. That straightforward description is, alas, an accurate depiction of the bland melodrama of City of Men the movie. The stars playing the two friends may well not be acting, or at least not much: both hail from the slums of Rio, and their performances are tough and honest. But the story swirling around them is disappointingly conventional. If I'd never seen City of God or the TV series, I'd have no ideas about the adventurous directions this story might have gone. But I have, and so I couldn't believe how unapologetically ordinary a path it has taken.