When I saw Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus in 2002, I was affected by the unvarnished and honest depiction of the Brazilian favelas – shanty towns, crowded onto Rio de Janiero’s hillsides, filled with poverty and perishable dreams. Although I had never been to Brazil, the violence and vitriol reminded me of the Jamaican inner city communities I had grown up watching on the news and whose gunshots echoed faintly in my guarded suburb. Meirelles’s relentlessly kinetic camera captured the vitality and futility of life in the favela, two sides of a tarnished centavo.
So I entered the theatre to see Paulo Morelli’s Cidade dos Homens, “from the producers of City of God,” with unhealthy skepticism (especially for a critic). I was prepared, at the first copycat edit or borrowed line of dialogue, to dismiss the film as a failed attempt to cash in on the runaway success of the 2002 original. Two hours later, I was still waiting. City of Men is as powerful, and more touching, than its filmic predecessor.
In a way, City of Men actually predates City of God. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that the two films are blood brothers, much like City of Men’s dual protagonists. Writer Paulo Lins, who grew up in Cidade de Deus, published an eponymous 1997 novel chronicling four decades of death and decadence and tracing the divergent path of two childhood friends. Fernando Meirelles then turned one of the novel’s vignettes into the short film Palace II (2000), with 12-year-olds Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Douglas Silva as Laranjinha.
Two years later, Meirelles made Cidade de Deus and the film’s success led to the Brazilian television series Cidade dos Homens, starring Cunha and Silva in switched roles. The show became a hit in its own right, its twenty episodes playing to 35 million viewers, and went off the air in 2005. Cidade dos Homens – the film – picks up three years after the end of the television series. It’s a history as complicated as those of the favelas.
In the film, Acerola (Silva) and Laranjinha (Cunha), are grappling with the uncomfortable transition from boys to men as they turn 18 – Acerola has a wife and a young child; Laranjinha wants to find the father he never knew. They live on Dead End Hill, under the armed protection of Madrugadao and his number two, Nefasto. The film opens on a blistering summer day. Madrugadao descends the hill for the first time in three years to go for an ocean swim. It is the pebble that catalyzes a landslide of gang warfare, defections, mistaken alliances, ambushes and dead bodies.
While the quicksilver atmosphere of living in Dead End Hill is terrifying, both for the occupants and the audience – in one sequence where Acerola flees for his life through the arteries of the hill, I wanted to scream at him to shed his backpack and ten pounds – the heart of the film is the relationship between Acerola and Laranjinha. Theirs is a truly familial bond – each understands the other better than he understands himself. When Laranjinha refuses to enter a building that may house his father, Acerola goes by himself. Laranjinha kisses Acerola’s child as if it is his own.
Cunha and Silva play the inseparable friends so naturalistically, so easily, that a willing suspension of disbelief isn’t necessary, only a belief in suspense – What will they do now? Where will they sleep? Will Laranjinha find Acerola? Will Acerola become like all the other boys? The relationship is enhanced through flashbacks stripped from the television series – we get to see Cunha and Silva as their muscles emerge, as their smiles get less toothy, as they grow up. The effect is not unlike watching home movie footage, an effect enhanced by the contrast between the TV show’s grainier 16mm and the film’s more polished 35mm images. Morelli desaturates the flashback clips, but the rich, colourful performances are undiminished by aesthetic tricks. The director knows that his actors have embodied their characters for years; he moves the camera so close to their faces that a tightening of the jaw or a relaxing of the eyes says more than a monologue. At the film’s climax, as Laranjinha pleads with Acerola, we are focused not on the words but on their faces.
The handheld camerawork is mostly out of necessity – you try laying camera track on narrow, winding, broken concrete steps between zinc fences – but Morelli and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, resist swinging the camera around. The chases and fights feel claustrophobic and desperate even with a Steadicam. In fact, you wonder how long James Bond and Jason Bourne would last in Morelli’s world without editing to save them.
As visceral and cathartic as the film was for this Third World critic, I can’t escape a sense of closure, not just for Acerola and Laranjinha, but for the cinematic depiction of poor, gun-ravaged urban Rio. One novel, two feature films and a television series are not nearly enough to tell all the stories that need to be told, but new stylistic and narrative exploration is necessary if Morelli et al want us to return to the theatre. The next one-sheet I see for a Brazilian film should say “Not from the producers of City of Men, but just as compelling.” But that’s no way to win hearts, minds and the box office. Cidade dos Angels, anyone?
Cidade dos Homens (City of Men)
Directed by Paulo Morelli.
With Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha.
110 minutes. Drama.