Viewers of HBO's brilliant The Wire know that the urban labyrinth of Baltimore is a rough place, but next to the hard streets of Rio de Janeiro, it looks like Epcot Center. As depicted in City of Men, an indirect sequel to the unforgettably harrowing City of God, much of Rio is a chaotic war zone, with each ramshackle neighborhood (or favela) ruled by sparring gangs.
The crew that holds down one squalid patch called "Dead End Hill" is led by a scary young dude named Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen), but his crown is under assault from rivals. The ramifications of this struggle are becoming real for best friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha), who've basically gotten a free pass because Wallace is Midnight's cousin. Now the boys are turning 18, faced with adulthood, which means either choosing sides in the fight that's all around them or finding an escape from the violent cycle. Each confronts parental issues too: Ace is trying to be a dad to his little boy, though he's still just a kid himself, and Wallace discovers the identity of the father he's never known.
Of course, pop Heraldo (Rodrigo dos Santos) isn't too happy to be found; fresh out of prison he's in no mood to get involved with the son he abandoned years ago. He eventually comes around, though, and the developing paternal relationship between the two men becomes the movie's fascinating emotional core. The storyline occasionally becomes episodic — with certain developments a bit too convenient — but the film remains rooted in an unshakable reality. Happiness in this harsh world is fleeting, and tends to come at a high costs, a point driven home over and over again by director Paulo Morelli, who draws truthful performances from his young actors. This is a place of profound beauty — when the boys go for a romp on the beach, their faces glow with honey-colored sunlight, yet brutal ugliness is never far away.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.