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Friday, February 29, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"City of Men" a riveting drama of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"City of Men," with Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha. Directed by Paulo Morelli, from a screenplay by Elena Soarez.

110 minutes. Rated R for violence, language. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Seven Gables and Lincoln Square.

When Fernando Meirelles' Brazilian drug-trade drama "City of God" burst upon the global film scene in 2002, it was hailed as an instant classic, fueled by the hyperkinetic style that made Meirelles (who followed up with "The Constant Gardener") a director to watch.

With its vivid portrayal of crime and social decay in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, "City of God" inspired the acclaimed Brazilian TV series "City of Men" (now available on DVD), which in turn spawned this feature-length follow-up directed by Meirelles' frequent collaborator, Paulo Morelli.

While both films share much of the same DNA, "City of Men" takes a more conventional but no less riveting approach to favela life, seen here in a broader context of urban warfare, where gang leaders control hillside 'hoods like fiefdoms ravaged by territorial skirmishes.

Fathers are an endangered species here, and the definition of fatherhood is constantly tested.

Now on the cusp of young adulthood, best friends Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha) never knew their fathers. While Ace is torn between gang loyalties and responsibility for his own toddler son, Wallace conducts a potentially hazardous search for his own long-lost father, an ex-convict who's returned to the labyrinthine shantytowns of Dead-End Hill.

Meanwhile, gang wars and a hidden secret from their past threaten to tear the friends apart. This familiar plotting plays out with few surprises, culminating in a climactic showdown that takes full advantage of the dynamic favela settings and Morelli's uncompromising emphasis on physical and emotional authenticity. There are moments in "City of Men" that feel so vividly accurate that you may find yourself ducking from the gunfire.

And yet, for all its attention to detail, "City of Men" can be a depressing experience as it justifies the belief that humanity is trapped in an irreversible downward spiral. While watching the film, you may find yourself wishing the favelas could be walled off and forgotten, like the crime-ridden city in "Escape from New York."

As a parting gesture, Morelli offers a hint of optimism that his film (and the reality that inspired it) doesn't entirely earn. Still, it's an admirable act of defiance to suggest that humanity has a future in this hellhole, and the film's final image promotes a hopeful definition of manhood.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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