2000's art-house megahit "City of God" has officially attained franchise status -- after spawning a made-for-television series, "City of Men," it's now passing a licensed spin-off of the same title along to theaters. Director Paulo Morelli, who had a hand in the TV show, looks at the favelas of Rio de Janeiro through a scrim of hissing high-contrast grain, the camera swaying with heatstroke wooziness over swaggering neighborhood kingpins.
A civil war is popping off between the longtime King of the Hill drug mogul and his first lieutenant, and the gang conscription drive starts going after uncommitted able-bodied kids, basically decent types like teen father Ace and his longtime best friend Wallace ("CoG"'s child stars Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha). They're both about to turn 18, and mutually trying to settle questions of paternity so they can put their ID papers in order -- the theme of absentee fatherhood is further elucidated through Significant Scenes (a game of hot potato with a neglected toddler) that make one retrospectively long for the outright weirdness of John Singleton's "Baby Boy."
The cascading hillside slums are toured firsthand; the cast, by all accounts, consists of kids recruited from off these same streets. The frame lunges around with restlessness that's a sure heads-up for reviewers to socket the words "visceral" and/or "immediate" into their copy. But for all the effort to create credible lower depths verisimilitude, these characters are more recognizably residents of a movie than a city, seemingly only opening their mouths to advance the (familiar) storyline or reiterate the filmmaker's (familiar) message.
Breathlessly marshaled to and fro by the screenplay's contrivances and an overeager camera, the actors aren't able to establish themselves as personalities beyond what their inherent veracity allows. Each scene falls over onto the next -- and though there's nothing inherently wrong with taking that tempo, it takes a defter filmmaker than Morelli to keep the beat.
The story, the feelings, the scenarios, the images are all ones you've seen before, so ubiquitous in films of ghetto life that I can only imagine they have a counterpart in reality. But bringing the same report back from the lower depths isn't enough. Telling the eternal story of poverty is a genre unto itself, and there have been spouts of brilliance, when the universal experience of impoverishment is seen anew, distinctly: Bunuel's "Los Olvidados," Stephen Crane's "Maggie," Jay-Z's "Blueprint," Brisseau's "Sound and Fury," William Vollman's "Poor People," Pasolini's rough trade Roma, right back to the wellspring of Dickens (from whom Morelli and Elena Soarez's story borrows his insanely serendipitous plot devices, but nothing of his feel for indelible characterization).
"City of Men" favors a monotonous tumbledown realism, a superficiality that must still somewhere pass as authenticity. But consider this quandary: there's substantially more feeling -- soul, even -- and about the same level of insight to be found in listening to Elvis Presley's recording of "In the Ghetto" (released 1968, runtime 2:45) as in watching this film (released 2006, runtime 110 minutes).
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a weekly critic for the Village Voice.]