“City Of God,” from 2003, still stands up as one of the best films of the decade. Its story of two decades of gang history in a Rio de Janeiro favela (slum) was compelling enough, taking viewers into an underworld rarely glimpsed by outsiders. But as much as the story itself, the way in which it was realized on screen was incredibly fresh. A lot of this came from watching the styles of its co-directors Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles collide — she came from documentaries, he from commercials. While seemingly opposed, their styles converged to create a new kind of hyper-realism.

“City of God” had a distinct, color-saturated look; it was filmed on location in actual favelas and featured kids from the streets in the roles. Yet, while striving for this realism, the film also sought to make it bigger than life, cutting scenes to the rhythm of the soundtrack, using freeze-frames, split-screens, bullet-eye views and collage. Every lesson worth taking from Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” was learned, and then some.

Significantly, the film did not preach anything but the laws of karma. You live by the gun, then it’s likely you’ll die by the gun, and most of its characters did, both the ones we liked, and the ones we didn’t. Only Rocket, the kid who parlayed his camera skills into a job in journalism, managed to find a life on the right side of the law.

City of Men
Director Paulo Morelli
Run Time 106 minutes
Language Portuguese
Opens Opens Aug. 9, 2008

The film was enough of a hit in its native Brazil that its creators decided to follow it up with a TV series, “City Of Men,” similarly focused on gang life in the favelas. After several successful seasons, the series comes to the big screen, with two of the teenage characters from the TV series now grown up and at a crossroads in their lives.

Acerola (Douglas Silva) and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) are best friends, living in a Rio favela but staying on the fringes of gang activity. Both are about to turn 18, on the cusp of becoming adults, and wondering what to do with their lives. Acerola, despite his youth, already has a son, but chafes at the responsibility of taking care of him. For this, he’s often lectured by Laranjinha, who never knew his own father, and doesn’t want Acerola’s boy to go through the same thing.

If this sounds a bit preachy, well, it is. As so often happens with well-intentioned liberal cinema, one feels the message dictates the characters, rather than the other way around. The message on fatherhood — and accepting its responsibilities — is obviously a worthy one, but it might make a better public-service ad than a film.

Director Paulo Morelli tries to boost the drama with a gang war between local crime-lord Madrugadao (Jonathan Haagensen) and his lieutenant Nefasto (Eduardo BR), which threatens to draw in Acerola and Laranjinha on opposite sides. But while this reinforces the dangers and temptations the boys face in their favela, for the most part the gang war is entirely separate from the main story, and the boys serve only as bystanders.

The film shares most of the crew from “City Of God”; cinematographer Adriano Goldman is back, and he brings the same saturated, grainy look here, while shooting on actual favela streets and Rio beaches. Antonio Pino, for his part, contributes a cool, atmospheric soundtrack full of acoustic guitar and slapped congas. Editor Daniel Rezende, who also cut the previous film, is kept on a much tighter leash here. Morelli doesn’t allow him to display the techniques that Fernando Meirelles allowed, and the film suffers as a result. “City of Men” sure looks and sounds like “City of God,” but some crucial element — call it verve, or panache — has gone missing. This plays very much like a tamer, straighter, TV version of the earlier film.

Silva and Cunha turn in decent performances — as do Rodrigo Dos Santos as Laranjinha’s ex-con father, and Naima Silva as his girlfriend — but the script gives them little to work with. Viewers who have watched the entire TV series will have seen these boys grow up on screen, and bring a lot more knowledge of the characters to the film. For the rest of us, the feeling that we’re missing something is inescapable. “City of Men” can be watched without having seen the series, but its impact won’t be the same.

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