Set in the labyrinthine, ramshackle slums overlooking Rio de Janeiro, "City of Men" is a grimly rousing gangster movie with a wholesome message. Although it shares its setting and some of its cast with "City of God" (2002), this new subtitled film has less in common with that cinematically juiced depiction of housing-project life than it does with James Cagney's "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938), whose gunplay was sometimes drowned out by the thundering of the moral.
The result is an efficient, simply told story, with authentic glimpses of violence and poverty. That's in spite of the plot's neat contrivances and the movie's determination to pull some edifying nugget from the heartbreak and hopelessness at its core.
"What use is a father, anyway?" asks Acerola (Douglas Silva), nicknamed "Ace," near the beginning of the film. It's a question that resonates throughout this story, haunted as it is by many dead or absent fathers. Ace's father was gunned down years before. His best friend, Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha), who goes by "Wallace," doesn't even know who his father is and laments that his identification papers will forever brand him a bastard. Like the impetuous 18-year-olds they are, they take off to track down an old relative who might be able to clear up the mystery. One problem: They forget they're supposed to be looking after Ace's own baby boy and leave him unattended on the beach, half submerged in the surf. So the cycle continues.
As the plot comes into focus, Ace and Wallace find themselves caught in the crossfire of a fierce struggle between gangs for control of Dead End Hill, a shanty-covered precipice commanding views of Rio's famous coastline. On his aerie-like perch at the top of Dead End, the gangster-in-chief, Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen), barks orders, preens himself and fosters resentments among his lieutenants, prompting one, Nefasto (Eduardo B.R. Piranha), to plot a coup.
Although our likeable (if feckless) protagonists aren't directly involved in this conflict, having the wrong person as a cousin, say, can be a death warrant in this intensely tightknit slum. Violence is just something you come across, like the smell of cooking in the narrow streets. When a distant shot rings out, a man turns to his neighbor, dryly remarks, "One less," and moves on to other matters.
One of the chief characters, in a way, is the neighborhood itself, balanced atop the mountain along steeply winding alleys and crisscrossed by a dizzyingly complex network of concrete stairways. At one point, lifelong residents get into an argument over just where a well-known neighborhood landmark actually is. (They're trying to draw up a map for a battle plan.) It's as if this Escher-like city-within-a-city had been designed to encourage ambush or furtive sexual encounters. On the other hand, there's a communal intimacy that seems to keep most of the residents, with the notable exception of Ace's young wife, Cris (Camila Monteiro), from even contemplating an obvious response to the violence and muck: moving away.
Director Paulo Morelli gets good, believable performances from his cast -- many of them not professional actors and guides us through the various plot lines with a steady hand. Against the backdrop of escalating violence between warring gangs, Wallace manages to track down his father (Rodrigo Dos Santos), but this reunion leads to revelations that threaten to make enemies of the friends, maybe mortal ones. The sins of the fathers are not easily dispelled.
Although the gunfights make you squirm with anxiety, perhaps the most gut-wrenching moment in "City of Men" is a quiet one: a flashback to the maternity ward where Ace first sees his baby. A nurse has to force the unwilling boy-man to take his son in his arms, and he stands there, baffled and defeated, as tears roll down his face not because he's overjoyed, but because he has no idea what he's doing.
Ultimately, what's most upsetting in the film is its frank depiction of young people, at the mercy of their bodies and their whims, who are utterly astonished to discover that sex or crime, for example, can lead to babies or prison terms. At its most forced and affirmative, "City of Men" has the air of a particularly gritty after-school special. Nevertheless, filled with honesty, compassion and outrage, the movie never succumbs entirely to its comparatively simplistic good intentions. (R) 111 min. S