On February 28, 1983, CBS aired “Goodbye, Farewell And Amen,” the movie-length final episode of M*A*S*H, the TV sitcom itself inspired by a movie. The M*A*S*H finale was more dramatic, and at times more cinematic, than a typical episode of the series, but if it were shown today back to back with the original 1970 Robert Altman film, to an audience that had never seen any version of M*A*S*H before, they probably wouldn’t see much continuity beyond some shared character names. “Goodbye, Farewell And Amen” is very much a movie version of M*A*S*H the TV show, most meaningful to people who spent 11 seasons watching its characters endure the Korean War.
So it goes with City Of Men. Writer-director Paulo Morelli spun off his 2007 feature film from a Brazilian TV series that ran for four seasons and 19 half-hour episodes between 2002 and 2005; even now, long after the show went off the air, City Of Men feels like a big-screen epilogue to a small-screen story. The City Of Men TV show was created by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the co-directors of City Of God, the Oscar-nominated 2002 adaptation of Paulo Lins’ semi-autobiographical 1997 crime novel. Like the book, the film City Of God stretches across decades, tracking the social changes and the persistence of gang conflict in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The TV series City Of Men spans time too, but much more slowly. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha star as Acerola (a.k.a. “Ace”) and Laranjinha (a.k.a. “Wallace”), two schoolboy chums who are 13 years old in the first season of the show, and 17 in the last. A sort of cross between Degrassi Junior High and Boyz N The Hood, the TV version of City Of Men is an episodic show about the typical preoccupations of teenage boys—sex, rivalries, dances, after-school jobs—set in a poor community governed by drug lords.
City Of God is a phenomenal movie. It’s exhilarating and intricate, and sophisticated enough that it contains within itself the criticism that it glamorizes violence and poverty. (All the scenes in City Of God of gangsters posing for cameras is both a reflection and a partial indictment of how criminals embrace the pop-culture versions of themselves.) City Of Men is a remarkable TV series. It’s smart and sensitive, and like the movie, it finds a variety of characters and stories in a part of the world that some would write off as an uninhabitable wilderness. City Of God ends with its hero, “Rocket,” getting his job as a photojournalist primarily because no one else at the local newspaper has the courage to go into the favelas and see what the gangsters are up to. City Of Men is like Rocket, in that it serves as a window into an otherwise-closed world. But it’s also a well-made show in and of itself, taking a number of approaches to the way it explores class, crime, and youth. Some episodes are more comic, some are more melodramatic, and some are fairly experimental, using first-person video and even animation to visualize Ace and Wallace’s aspirations.
Why, then, does the City Of Men movie feel so paltry? Maybe because it’s trying so hard not to be. And maybe because it has to serve two masters, by bringing the grit and gravity that fans of City Of God expect from a semi-sequel, while wrapping up the five-year saga of Ace and Wallace.
It isn’t that common for a TV series to spin off a movie, even a TV movie. But whenever it happens, the creators seem obliged to go big, by sending the characters off on an exotic trip, killing off one of the mainstays, or digging deep into the show’s mythology. The charm of the TV City Of Men is in its smallness, and how it makes difficult subjects like criminality and hunger more relatable by filtering them through simple, everyday situations. The movie City Of Men is much heavier, using as its hook Ace and Wallace’s mutual decision to find their biological fathers as they turn 18. That quest generates tension in their friendship, exacerbated by a gang war on Dead End Hill. The movie is an inversion of the show, burying something human-scaled—a yearning for a father-figure—in bloody standoffs.
Visually, the City Of Men movie is closer to City Of God than to the TV series. The series looks good, but doesn’t sport the rich tones of the two films. Structurally, the City Of Men movie tries to ape City Of God too, by drawing on footage from the TV series to serve the same function that City Of God’s digressive flashbacks did. Even with those flashbacks, though, City Of Men lacks the scope of City Of God, because the main plot of the Men movie only covers a brief period of time. The flashbacks work best when they have a more modest aim: to show how Ace and Wallace have grown up between 2002 and 2007. It’s rare for a film to be able to show characters aging without using makeup or hiring different actors. When Morelli illustrates Ace and Wallace’s friendship via a montage of the two boys throwing their arms around each other’s necks over the years, the effect is stunning.
Anyone wondering how City Of Men (in both its forms) relates to City Of God should consider that montage. Yes, both Citys are set in Rio’s hillside slums. Yes, both are stylish, and riddled with gunfire. But City Of God is largely defined by its relationships. What makes Benny’s death in City Of God so devastating is that he’s a friend to everyone—even the psychopathic crime boss Li’l Zé—and once he’s gone, the fraternal bond that keeps a lot of the violence in check is gone, too. That bond is the central theme of both the TV and movie City Of Men. Ace and Wallace survive because they have each other, and rely on each other’s kindness, wits, and big-picture vision to muddle through. They’re full of plans, these two.
Those plans are better represented on the show, which is episodic and cumulatively powerful in a way the City Of Men movie really can’t be. The film features a sequence where Ace brings his toddler to the beach and then forgets him there, and where that might’ve been an entire episode of the TV series—following Ace and Wallace up and down the mountain and through a cross-section of the community as they try to figure out who passed the kid on to whom—it only takes up about five minutes of screen-time in the film, serving as an unfunny, unproductive comic interlude.
But the film’s inflated sense of importance has its benefits, too. Morelli routinely sets up shots so Ace and Wallace are framed against the steep, forbidding Dead End Hill, implying that their home is always with them, affecting their every move. That adds a note of melancholy to the final shot of City Of Men, which has Ace, Wallace, and Ace’s little boy walking hand in hand into the city to start a new life, while the favelas loom above them, like a stormcloud.
So what is City Of Men: a sequel to City Of God, or a big-budget TV episode? It’s mostly the latter, striving vainly to be the former. As with that M*A*S*H example, anyone who watched City Of God and City Of Men back to back for the first time, with no knowledge of the TV series, likely wouldn’t see the two films as closely related. But fans of City Of God should look into the weekly adventures of Acerola and Laranjinha, which are an excellent example of how to channel the sensibility and perspective of a movie through the demands of television. All the focus these days on television as long-form cinema, or as the new novel, unfairly discounts one of the things the medium does best: bring viewers into a character’s world one story at a time. At two hours, City Of Men makes for a just okay movie. But in its half-hour form, City Of Men is TV as TV, and all the better for it.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion concludes here. Don't miss Monday's Keynote on City Of God's interconnected chaos, and Tuesday's staff Forum on how the film's style affects its message. Next week, we'll be discussing W.D. Richter's ultra-quotable weirdo adventure-comedy The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension.