For men, few things are more basic than the need for a father, the presence of a man who can provide a nourishing example. I suppose a case can be made that even if his father is seriously flawed, a boy can establish some kind of tangible foothold on his existence, someone or something to which he can react in a meaningful way.
A sequel to the astonishing “City of God,” Paulo Morelli’s “City of Men” captures the abysmal conditions of gang life in the squalid areas of Rio de Janiero. But at the center of it all is a quest for identity and direction in a world in which few boys have fathers. They’re street kids, veritable urchins. One is Acerola or “Ace” (Douglas Silva), who knows only that his father was killed. At 18, he is still the boy, married and the father of a tyke named Clayton. His best friend is Laranjinha (Jonathan Haagensen), whose nickname is Wallace. He is looking for his father so that he can get an ID card and prove that he exists.
Ace and Wallace are buddies, watching each other’s backs in the gang-infested environment in which urban warriors with guns battle for command of areas like Dead End Mountain. It’s a place in which, as an act of revenge, kids will burn a grandmother out of her home on a whim, leaving her disconsolate, sitting on a curb, wondering what she will now do with her life. It is a “city” of no escape, and watching the activities of men and boys who live in hovels on the side of a hill, you may wonder about those who talk about the virtues of free will over environment.
Though he has no father of his own, Ace cares enough about Wallace to research his father’s identity and then mount a search for him. The sire turns out to be an ex-convict named Heraldo, who at first shuns his son. Later, they effect a tenuous bond, attached to some mystery about Heraldo’s unwillingness to shelter Ace.
In the meantime, we witness gunfights that threaten the lives of both Ace and Wallace. We fear for their safety and wonder whether they can ever escape their squalor. Perhaps there is hope with Ace’s wife, who can make as much as $30,000 working as a nanny in another city.
But that means Ace will have to care for Clayton; taking this responsibility and having fun with the boys is now his challenge.
“City of Men” does not have that piercing naturalistic horror and drive of its predecessor. But it stands on its own as a chronicle of enduring friendship in impossibly horrid circumstances, a sign that in a place or places we call dangerous there are always victims who yearn for something more but have no idea how to achieve that goal.
The film occasions us to wonder why a government can allow such squalor and inhumanity to exist, especially one that invites foreigners as tourists to its beautiful and picturesque cities and country.