Favela drama turns melodrama in Paulo Morelli’s City of Men

City of Men, the loosely-defined sequel to 2002’s City of God, takes us back to Dead End Hill, one of the many slums in Rio de Janeiro. Where City of God leaves off with a young man’s development into a photojournalist, City of Men picks up following best friends Ace and Wallace on the cusp of adulthood. This sequel distinguishes itself from City of God in being a story about survival, rather than one about growing up. Thus, the question remains: does City of Men live up to the ingenuity of the original? (Answer: nope.)

Director Paulo Morelli’s formal realist approach is countered by the story’s overly theatrical plot. City of Men’s familiar overarching theme is the absence of fathers: the film follows Wallace’s search for his paternal roots and Ace’s frustration with the burden of raising his unwanted son. However, it fails to answer the question of what links a connection with the past and hope for the future to a turbulent and uncertain present. Rather, what drives the narrative is a routine series of events common to gangster-themed films: tested loyalties, blistering violence, tough choices – you name it. The familiar plotlines and unconvincing melodrama do little to save the film from mediocrity.

That said, City of Men isn’t without its strong qualities. The two leads (Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha) pull off their roles effortlessly. This comes as little surprise given that Silva and Cunha portrayed their characters Ace and Wallace in the hit Brazilian television series Cidade dos Homens from 2002 to 2005. The two actors play their roles with a fleshed-out sense of humanity in the midst of chaotic struggle, like much of the ensemble of City of Men’s predecessor.

Sadly, this does not extend to the rest of Morelli’s cast of characters. For instance, there’s Midnight, a stereotypical warlord with simplistic motives and questionable reasoning. Now this is fine and dandy – who am I to object when a warlord is portrayed as a shameless maniac? But what really busts my chops is the film’s half-hearted attempt to give him some depth about two-thirds of the way through, during a dialogue he shares with Ace. Oh! And here I was thinking he was a crazy, gun-slinging lunatic. No, he’s human. Right. Then there’s Wallace’s father, who enters and leaves the film’s narrative rather abruptly and without much explanation. The problem with the film’s supporting actors is their lack of credibility as whole characters, and their often awkward integration into the plot.

Thankfully, Morelli has toned down the breakneck pacing, the supersonic editing, and general “MTVision” of City of God. If you’ve seen the film, you will agree that this comes with a degree of relief. Unlike City of God, City of Men goes more Quentin Tarantino than Tony Scott. Equipped with traditional cinéma vérité techniques, Morelli’s formal delivery offers a certain magnetism and makes the claustrophobia of the slums palpable.

City of Men’s many storylines are precariously balanced, and it fails to flesh any of them out realistically. The film risks triteness and, ultimately, it lacks the candidness and stark believability of City of God. In a world where it’s sink or swin, City of Men unfortunately capsizes.

City of God is currently playing at AMC Forum (2313 Ste. Catherine O.).