A sort of mix of Fernando Meirelles' (co-producer here) "City of God" in visual style and "Oliver Twist" in spirit, one of the major problems of "City of Men" is its contrived plot solutions: we have to deal with Acerola's impossibly fast finding of Laranjinha's father whereabouts. And Acerola's grandmother ending up homeless and abandoned by her family (in the film's phoniest solution). And trafficker Nefasto suddenly changing sides in the gang war; and Acerola's one-chance-in-a-million spotting trafficker Fiel still alive, and the phony solution linking Acerola's and Laranjinha's fathers in the past, etc.
Director Paulo Morelli -- who made the practically unseen "Preço da Paz" and the insipid "Viva Voz", and directed some episodes of the "City of Men" TV series -- comes from the publicity world, and it certainly shows. His images are (too) soigné: the black bodies have a golden shine, with pearly sweat drops and blazingly white teeth. He adopts cinéma-vérité style (in the camera-work, dialog, performances), now de rigueur in films dealing with "stark realities". Oscar-nominated editor Daniel Rezende ("City of God", "Motorcycle Diaries") tries to keep things moving fast so we don't have time to think about plot holes and contrivances. Antonio Pinto's music is beautiful but inexplicably old-fashioned for a movie about teenagers. On a positive note, the sound design and effects are superb.
The cast -- most of them from the TV series -- is asked to do more of the same. Douglas Silva (Acerola) relies on his intuitive acting and his big, expressive fish face. Jonathan Haagensen (as drug lord Madrugadão) again acts with his pout and bare torso in his usual laid back bad-boy style, looking suitably stoned. Babu Santana does his usual scenery-chewing in a bit as a trafficker. Camila Monteiro, Luciano Vidigal (a sensitive actor with an impossible part) and others repeat their TV roles. Eduardo BR as Nefasto suggests a blooming talent; Rodrigo dos Santos as Laranjinha's father has a great movie face, and first-timers Pedro Henrique (Caju) and Naíma Silva (Camila) are sensitively directed. The best is Darlan Cunha as Laranjinha: no-nonsense, nonplussed, witty and resourceful, his deadpan acting is the essence of the "carioca cool".
But there's something bothersome about "Cidade dos Homens": it's hard to concentrate on Acerola's sex troubles or Laranjinha's unlikely instant attachment to his shady father (are Rio's street kids really this naive?) when characters like Caju (the dim-witted, glamor-seeking teenager who joins the drug gang) or those really original characters -- the teenage girls that have "upgraded" from "gangsta molls" to becoming gangstas themselves -- screamed for attention and development. The fact is it's weird to take "City of Men" for its face value, i.e. a buddy-buddy movie with the favela drug war on the background, though we all know ordinary life somehow always goes on even in the most violent, crude realities.
By focusing on the personal problems of Acerola and Laranjinha, director Morelli and writer Elena Soárez ("House of Sand", "Eu Tu Eles", lending a sensitive touch to what could have been a stolid buddy movie) choose to concentrate on plot and characters, using a lot of big close-ups of the kids' faces so we won't be distracted by the hellish favela background -- and yet the "background" jumps right on our laps. Poverty, segregation, racism, drugs, guns and violence, the absence of schools, hospitals, formal employment or government assistance, the dire conditions of life in the favelas that affect over one million people in Rio are, in fact, the cause of most of Acerola and Laranjinha's "personal" problems. Maybe one day we'll all be desensitized enough to take that sort of background as routine scenery, but not right yet.
"City of Men" has a major asset, anyhow: the final scene is lyrical, ingenious and filled with humor -- it's a great finale for the successful series that dared put on Brazilian TV favela teenagers as protagonists, teenagers who usually just show up in movies and TV (and, many times, and tragically, in real life) as traffickers, junkies, thieves or corpses.