Facing the Grim Reality of Adulthood in “City of Men”

Six years after releasing the Academy-Award nominated film “City of God,” a harrowing look into Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, gang warfare and the drug dealing that entrenches them, director Fernando Meirelles returns with “City of Men.” The film focuses again on Brazilian slums and centers on two youths who transition into an important phase of maturity that will make or break their chance of a successful future.
Long-time childhood friends and the film’s focal duo, 18-year-olds Acerola (Ace) and Laranjinha (Wallace), come to the realization that adulthood will be a major turning point in their lives. Underneath the machismo and braggadocio, Ace is now a young father afraid to take on parental responsibility. He questions his ability to take care of his son while his wife leaves town for one year to take a lucrative job offer. Meanwhile, Wallace goes on a quest in search of the father he has never known.
The lack of a father figure is a significant undercurrent of the film and a contributing factor to why the characters lack direction or guidance in life. This is seen when Ace contemplates abandoning his baby and leaving him without a father just like Acerola’s father left him, while Wallace is emotionally torn because he doesn’t know his father. Although Wallace eventually finds his father Heraldo who served 15 years for murder and begins to develop a bond with him, Heraldo gets arrested again and taken away, leaving Wallace fatherless once more.
In this regard, the film brings to light the issue of fatherless children and how often the cycle repeats, causing youths to join gangs in order to fill the void of a missing father. Luckily, Ace and Wallace recognize this plight and make a sincere effort not to follow in the footsteps of their absent fathers, a sign that their minds are on straight relative to their friends lost within gang life. This common vision also strengthens the pair’s friendship.
However, this bond is tested when Ace and Wallace find themselves unwillingly pitted against each other as a result of interlocking events involving rival gangs. Ace learns from the opposing gang leader that his father was killed by Wallace’s father; Wallace doesn’t learn of this until Ace spills the beans to him.
Amidst a territorial gang war, Ace, in an irrational stupor, threatens to kill Wallace to avenge the death of his father until Wallace knocks some sense into Ace and convinces him violence will lead only to a bitter, fateful end, and that their friendship is everything they have.
While “City of Men” may not consistently exude the quick-paced, furious action of “City of God,” it maintains an element of realism that adds credibility to the film. The handheld camera aesthetic á la “The Bourne Ultimatum” is visibly apparent and offers an honest, in-depth look at the favelas and the characters within them, capturing the run-down, impoverished nature of the area while providing a visual perspective that is more representative of the characters’ vantage points, especially in the gang warfare scenes. Additionally, the use of natural lighting gives the film a tarnished, but authentic feel as the hot Brazilian sun glistens off the sweaty bodies that infest the slums. Meirelles’ downplay of high production value and stylized cinematography allows the film to maintain its integrity as a realistic look into this unique Brazilian microcosm.
By the end of the film, one only hopes that Ace and Wallace will not get stuck in the dangerous, impoverished environment that sucks in and ruins many young men. As Ace, his infant son and Wallace leave town and venture off into the unknown in search of a better life, that beacon of hope remains as Meirelles highlights the transformation of boys entering manhood and realizing that there is a bright future somewhere on the Brazilian horizon.