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City of Men

Revisiting the Slums of Brazil

City of God may not have been perfect, but try telling that to its cultish followers, who have voted it the 16th best film of all time on the Internet Movie Database. Six years and one acclaimed television spinoff later, director Paulo Morelli has returned Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), best friends first introduced in the 1997 novel by Paulo Lins, to the screen for another harrowing tour through the gang-infested slums of Brazil.

The boys are older now, but their circumstances are depressingly familiar. They are fatherless children in an overwhelmingly male society dominated by the drug trade, fighting against a seemingly insurmountable tide of violence in hopes of surviving long enough to become men. Morelli, who directed three episodes of the TV series, approaches the material with less of a lurid, hyperkinetic sensibility than City of God co-directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, but the atmosphere is no less tense or breathtakingly dangerous. The streets of Rio remain the home of killers.

It is a deadly truth the boys know well, and when they’re not simply doing their best to stay alive, Laranjinha is indulging a desire to find his absentee father, whom he has never known. In the absence of real families, he and Ace regard each other as brothers. (Their easy rapport, which has a certain buoyant rhythm to it, is one of the film’s most obvious pleasures.) Together, they struggle toward forging a better life in an otherwise impossible situation.

Conceived less as a sequel than as a cinematic adaptation of the TV series, City of Men is sometimes confusing, with a crowded cast of characters whose motivations are not always clear. Even so, it seems no less inspired than any of its predecessors. As an eye-opening trip into the bowels of the Brazilian ghetto, informed by true-story accounts of the gang warfare tearing apart those same favelas, it pulses with life, heartbreaking though it often is.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars