Exploring the world through global cinema

You Lie Down With Dogs

This week: friendship, loyalty and desperation as World On Film travels to the slums of Rio de Janeiro for City Of Men. There’s also a brief stopover in British Indian Ocean Territory where a displaced people fight for their home. First up however, put the film City Of God out of your mind for the entirely unconnected:

City Of Men

(2007) Written by Elena Soarez & Paulo Morelli        Directed by Paulo Morelli

The struggle for survival in a world dominated by gang warfare in 'City Of Men', not to be confused with its near-namesake.

The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. The city’s signature image is that glittering crescent-shaped downtown coastline with a mass of white skyscrapers filling the shore to the right with the shining blue sea taking prominence on the left while beyond, the solid stone massif of Sugar Loaf Mountain defines the background. And yet, while it is surely the most striking of Rio de Janeiro’s natural landmarks, it is by no means anomalous to the rest of the capital’s layout. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio’s enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as favelas, often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In City Of Men, the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.

The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle ‘Dead End Hill’, concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as ‘Midnight’ in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film’s two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.

Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha play Acerola and Laranjinha, best friends until a dark secret from the past threatens to tear them apart.

One of City Of Men’s strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or ‘Morro da Sinuca’ in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.

“The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in [a shanty town ruled by gang warfare]: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law.”

Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.

'City Of Men' is actually the cinematic final chapter to the highly-popular Brazilian tv series of the same name. Inevitably, newcomers may not be able to appreciate the film as much as 'City Of Men's longtime fans.

It was not until after viewing the film that I learned City Of Men is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, City Of God, which apparently sets many up for disappointment. City Of Men, it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.

Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, City Of Men offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter  and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, City Of Men will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn’t work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.

The drama is shot on location in some of Rio de Janeiro's many shanty towns, hillside markers to the city's huge poverty divide.

I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on City Of Men until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.

To learn more about the original series, visit here.

To see the official website (in Portuguese), click here.

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*****

British Indian Ocean Territory

The original natives of British Indian Overseas Territory stage protest for the right to return to Diego Garcia, the main island of the archipelago, in 1980.

In late 2010, whistleblower site Wikileaks released documents disclosing efforts by the British government to turn the distant protectorate of islands known as British Indian Ocean Territory into a marine reserve. The archipelago had, once upon a time, been home to the Chagossians, the ethnic group of the region, principally settled on the island of Diego Garcia. In the 19th Century, the islands became part of the British colony of Mauritius (formerly possessed by France), however, when Mauritius was granted independence in 1965 (taking effect in 1968), they were separated and became what is now known as British Indian Ocean Territory. Over the next 8 years, the approximately 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the British government when it was decided that Diego Garcia was of sufficient strategic importance to host a military base. The facility was constructed in 1971, leased to the U.S. by England, and bearing the ironic designation Camp Justice.

Those in search of it meanwhile were relocated to the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles (both of which now lay claim to the territory) and the U.K. from where they would spend the next four decades protesting what they declared an illegal act. A 2006 High Court ruling agreed with them, however a 2008 ruling by the House of Lords supported the contention that the British government had a ‘royal prerogative’ to hold the archipelago. The Wikileaked documents outline the proposal by the British government in 2009 to turn the waters surrounding the islands into a “marine reserve”. This would then “assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld”, as well as make it “difficult, if not impossible, [for the native Chagossians] to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve”.

While unsurprisingly therefore, BIOT is not known for its film industry, its history is certainly worthy of a screenplay, though these days, the Chagossians would probably be depicted as blue-skinned inhabitants of a moon fighting the evil ‘Britcorp’ for their lucrative territory.

*****

Next Time

A nation experiencing the birth pains of social change. An irreconcilable generation gap. A frightened population looking for scapegoats. A man fighting for his sanity. Chaos and hope in the ambitious Bulgarian film Eastern Plays when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer – unsubtitled, but you’ll get the idea.

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