Seeking respite from the heat, Madrugadão (Jonathan Haagensen) suggests that his band of gangsters accompany him to the beach. Flies buzz and sweat glistens, the young and restless toughs mock one of their own for sport, then head off to the shore, where indeed, they find wide sky, blue water, “bikinis and nice asses.” For a few moments, best friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha) smile broadly, splashing in the water, relaxed and even a bit happy as they’re looking after Ace’s young son Clayton.
These first few moments of City of Men (Cidade Dos Homens) focus on the friends’ immaturity and naïveté. Making their way through alleys to the shore, and then on the bright sunny beach, they’re both cheerful and wary. Wallace’s shyness regarding his crush Camila (Naíma Silva) is lovely and even Ace’s blustery self-regard is strangely charming. This last is in part a function of Silva’s performance: now 20, he played the proto-psychopath Lil Dice in Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God in 2002. The new film, called a “companion piece” to the original, actually draws from characters developed in the mesmerizing, Meirelles-produced TV series inspired by City of God, also called City of Men. The series provides the movie with scenes of Ace and Wallace as kids (the roles they played on TV for 19 episodes), evocative flashbacks of a lifelong friendship forged amid poverty and pulsing with energy.
It’s an awkward device to posit Ace and Wallace as performative opposites, though this is ameliorated somewhat as the boys grapple with complex issues. While Wallace wonders about his own past (in a literalizing search for his long-absent father), Ace who gets over on a combination of warmth and genuine confusion when it comes to pleasing his on-and-off-again girlfriend Cris (Camila Monteiro). He displays as much when he and Wallace decide suddenly to leave the beach, wholly forgetting about Clayton. Crosscuts between the baby wailing and stumbling along the sand and the young father roaming the streets in search of his next adventure underline the disconnect between Ace’s experience and faux machismo (he reveals at one point that he’s never held a gun, then worries over how to use the one he’s handed by the gangster trying to deploy him in a war). Ace has grown up without a father (he was shot to death by a friend), and vows to be a good dad to Clayton. As he says this on the street with Wallace, his face falls: he’s remembering his abandoned child, and the two boys race off on the moto-taxi Wallace drives for cash, frantic to find the supposed object of Ace’s undying devotion.
It’s a bit of an antic moment, giving way to shots of the gang members who have in fact picked up Clayton and are now teasing him to tears, then handing him off to a much respected local soccer coach. But it also lays out the film’s essential point: children in the Rio de Janeiro favelas (slums) are pretty much on their own, sometimes treated as playthings, other times forgotten, or used for barter or bait. This point was made brutally in City of God, as the street kids like Lil Dice were coerced by the gangsters to patrol streets and murder rivals. In City of Men, less sensational, more conventionally melodramatic, the process is insidious and implacable: childhoods are lost to poverty, hopelessness, and dead or absent parents.
If Paulo Morelli’s movie isn’t so zip-zappy-kinetic as Meirelles and Lund’s, it offers a fascinating look at kids’ emotional lives and moral choices, their struggles within material limits and efforts to think beyond their apparent fates—to be gangsters, to become their fathers. When Cris informs Ace that she’s leaving for Sao Paulo in search of employment (she imagines making enough money to buy a house for her family), Ace is horrified. What is she thinking, leaving Clayton in his care? Such continuous responsibility threatens his carousing with various women (a habit enabled by his job as a security guard who spends his nights, not entirely in uniform, in an isolated booth along the road leading from one side of town to another). Besides, he argues, it’s unfair: “No one’s ever looked after me,” he frets, eyes wet with tears and fear.
Ace’s anxieties about fathering are refracted in Wallace’s search for his own dad, a onetime laborer and local soccer player imprisoned when Wallace was a child. Now that he’s turning 18, he could use his dad’s signature for an ID card; when he and Ace learn that Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos) has been paroled, they go on to locate him in a local project. Here the melodrama takes another focus, as Wallace finds himself enamored of the very idea of having a father: they spend a little time together, share a few meals, and suddenly Wallace’s options seem almost changed. But even as the boy imagines an existence apart from the gangs, a long-simmering tension erupts into overt street battles and assassination attempts.
When Madrugadão and the bullied and resentful Nefasto (Eduardo BR) take sides against one another, stake out territories and allegiances, the kids on the peripheries, like Ace and Wallace, are trapped. Equipped with artillery and hand-drawn maps, the teams take over the alleys and rooftops, as civilians hide as best they can (families of enemies are fair game, as are their homes). But for all the tragedy and brutality, City of Men is shaped by the uneven, difficult rhythms of father and sons, and more poignantly, by the boys’ determination to connect across years of pain and legacies of revenge.