[img id="80396" align="alignleft"] About a third of the way into Paulo Morelli’s new film City of Men, there is a shot of a person throwing a trash bag down a cliff into a quarry full of garbage. The camera follows the bag as it gracefully dives down the cliff and then zooms out to find the film’s main characters looking for a dead body in the quarry. This shot is the film’s most depressing point; the rest of the film falls short of delivering anything as beautiful or graceful as this shot.
City of Men has its roots in a critically acclaimed Brazilian mini-series by the same name. Both the mini-series and the film are meant to be the spiritual sequel to Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles’s masterpiece City of God. City of Men follows the story of Luis Claudío (Ace) and Wallace, two boys who grew up together in a Brazilian favela or shanty town. The film begins with Ace’s 18th birthday. He is already the father of a small boy and has trouble providing for his son while living his own life. The plot, however, is driven by Wallace’s quest to find the father he never knew.
One of the many problems with City of Men is that its characters fail to engage. Stylistically it always seems as though we’re on the outside. The camera always has some object or another obstructing us from seeing Ace and Wallace for whom they really are. The film just watches its characters, without emotion or empathy, and it lacks all of the truth and warmth of its spiritual predecessor City of God. As the audience of City of Men, we are never really a part of the action; we detach ourselves almost entirely from the film. City of Men lacks a true exposition and thus plays much like the finale of the mini-series it is based on. And without a narrator—something Meirelles’s City of God had—we become lost in the plot’s direction and the characters’ alliances.
Though the plot lacks true depth, the ultimate problem with this film is its style. Morelli’s camera struggles to navigate through the labyrinthine favelas. Too often does the camera lose sight of its characters, only to find itself staring into a corner or wall. This poor craftsmanship is a fault of the editors, not the cameraman on the scene. It is hard to imagine why Daniel Rezende, whose editorial credits include not only this picture but also City of God and The Motorcycle Diaries, makes some of the choices he does. Consider a scene where one gang is running up a favela built on a hill to attack another gang on their turf. The scene is composed of multiple static camera shots of gangsters running up stairs and around corners, shooting their guns. Now think back to a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas where Ray Liotta’s character is walking through a club. Scorsese’s scene is composed of one long shot. Scorsese’s approach would have gone a long way in City of Men. A continuous shot, or even several long shots would have emphasized the complexity of the favelas, as well as the brutal life of crime these young men lead.
On top of being convoluted, this film also looks bland. Brazil—more specifically its favelas—is a colorful, vibrant place, and Meirelles showed that in his City of God. In contrast, City of Men looks as though the directors left the film reel out in the sun too long. Most scenes have a washed-out look to them. Even in the panoramic shots of Rio de Janeiro and its stunning beaches, the colors of the city look dull. On top of that, Morelli persistently blurs the action, perhaps to emphasize the blurred moral choices these characters make, or just to show that Brazil is hot. Either way it doesn’t work.
While the majority of the film is uninspired, there is potential: be it the shot of falling trash or the final scene of the film, which juxtaposes the beauty of Rio de Janeiro against its favelas. It is clear that Morelli is a good filmmaker—without a doubt, it takes an artist to make Rio de Janeiro look bland. Although neither its plot nor its style lifts this film into greatness, City of Men has its strengths. Certainly the shots of Rio de Janeiro, though bland, are still beautiful. The characters may lack intrigue, but their problems do not. Therefore, the resolution to their problems is touching and heartfelt—just not enough to justify sitting through an hour and a half of bland, uninspired filmmaking.