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A universal language

Focused on two friends, 'City of Men' feels real, like a Brazilian 'Wonder Years.' With some guns.

April 04, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

When American TV casts its eye past our borders -- toward anywhere but England, that is, which is well represented in our tirelessly Anglophilic culture (guilty as charged, yer honor) -- it is usually to peek at the funny commercials, which are sexier than our own, or at strange game or reality shows that seem amusingly, um, foreign. In a country as big as this, whose stars are stars abroad in a way the stars of other places are rarely stars here, you can easily forget that there is more to media than is dreamed of in the production offices of Hollywood and Manhattan. Not even the ever presence of Latin American or Korean or Japanese television on what used to be called "the dial" really gets the message across, except to those who speak the language. The rest of us just click on by.

Portuguese is certainly not a tongue you hear often -- ever? -- spoken from your television, but that will change, briefly, as Sundance Channel imports the Brazilian series "City of Men." (Its four-episode first season airs this month, beginning tonight at 9, with an additional 10 shows to air sometime later.) A sort of sequel to the Oscar-nominated "City of God," set amid the vertiginous hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro, it reunites the movie's creative team, including co-directors Fernando Meirelles ("The Constant Gardener") and Katia Lund, cinematographer Cesar Charlone and writer Paolo Lins, although there are a lot of other hands involved as well. Young stars Darlan Cunha and Douglas Silva were also in "City of God," though in different roles.

That film, which took place over 20 years, from the 1960s to the 1980s, and centered on the growing drug trade, was a kind of "Once Upon a Time in Brazil," but like the present series its protagonist was not part of the gangs who ruled his world. Set in the present day, "City of Men," which focuses on teenage friends Acerelo (Silva) and Laranjinha (Cunha), is less "Scarface" than it is "The Wonder Years" with guns. When the pair fall half against their will into the job of delivering the neighborhood mail, and get lost in the big city while trying to return an undeliverable letter to its sender, it's the stuff of classic kid comedy, notwithstanding that they are almost executed for their pains.

Another episode puts a spin on the bully problem, and there are field trips, and girls, and coveted tennis shoes, and soccer, and video games and the age-old problem of getting a little money to have a little fun.

The series is remarkably nonjudgmental, and acknowledges that life may be loved under the worst of circumstances. Yet although everyone in it is accorded a certain dignity, nobody's let off the hook. Acerelo roams the city observing how the rich, "the playboys," are imprisoned behind their gates, security cameras and doormen, and that in the slums people are free and nobody steals. Yet immediately afterward he's robbed in his own neighborhood. The local gangsters can be charming and kind -- as the de facto governors of their community, they take governing seriously -- but they're also unpredictable thugs who change the rules to suit themselves and are too in love with power, a power that temporarily changes Acerelo himself when his sister starts to date a gang "general."

Even when foreign filmmakers have been affected by the tics of Hollywood, what comes out is quite different and brings us the inestimable gift of another way of looking at things. (Perhaps that's why the old Hollywood was so vital and various -- it was full of immigrants who never completely left home.) From the first scene, a history lecture in a noisy classroom, with faces winking on and off in the flashing light of a slide projector, "City of Men" has a rhythm unlike that of any American series I can recall. It's a work whose immense vitality and a persuasive naturalism overcome its occasional paroxysms of style or hammered-home points. It is in no sense a docudrama, but it has the flavor of real life, and we never doubt the truth of what we're seeing.


`City of Men'

Where: Sundance Channel

When: 9 tonight

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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