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Vantoen Pereira, Jr./Courtesy of Miramax Films

City of Men

Director Paulo Morelli reveals the beauty and treachery of Rio de Janeiro’s slums

By Kevin Spurgaitis

City of Men
Brazil: Portuguese with subtitles.
Directed by Paulo Morelli, starring
Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva.
(Fox Filmes do Brasil)

Lawless shantytowns, fatherless boys and harsh secrets underpin City of Men, set in Rio de Janeiro, inside the slum of Dead End Hill.

With his 18th birthday fast approaching, Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha) sets out to find the father he never met. If nothing else, he wants his biological parent to sign his birth certificate, so that he won’t have to go through life with “father unknown” stamped on his I.D. papers. Meanwhile, his best friend Acerola (Douglas Silva) tries to raise his own child and fails miserably, much to the chagrin of his young wife. But when the lifelong friends suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a gang war, they are forced to confront a loathsome truth from their shared past.

Locating the story in the same favelas as the Academy Award-nominated film City of God (2002), director Paulo Morelli adeptly shows audiences what it’s like to grow up in a South American culture rife with violence and run by street gangs. Women are present in this story, but the real focus is on the phenomenon of missing fathers and its devastating effect on young men, especially. Wallace finally tracks down his dad, Heraldo, an ex-waiter who has just finished a sentence for manslaughter, but is rebuffed in no uncertain terms. “I have nothing to give you,” Heraldo mutters to his son. “Nothing to offer at all.”

Occasionally, the film feels a bit clunky and contrived. We’ve seen discontented adolescents in movies before. Then again, the real star is Dead End Hill itself. Through his series of back-alley vignettes, the director spotlights the raw beauty and treachery of Rio de Janeiro’s slums — places endowed with breathtaking panoramas and religious architecture, not to mention notorious outlaws who so shrewdly fill the void left by absentee fathers.
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