A vibrant film community doesn't necessarily put a country's best face forward. City of God, Fernando Meirelles' scorching crime drama, fired the opening shot in an ongoing revival of Brazilian film. As exports, City of God and the crime films that followed frequently portray Rio de Janeiro as a sprawling, lawless slum that could be a cross between Capone-era Chicago and Escape from New York. Brazil's tourist board no doubt would prefer the global audience focus on the white, sandy beaches and scantily clad Carnival dancers.
The international acclaim for Brazilian cinema suggests the filmmakers are successfully drawing attention to the country's social problems. City of God and the prison drama Carandiru were based on actual events, while José Padilha's thrilling documentary Bus 174 turned a hostage situation into a national indictment of Brazil's homeless problem. The police drama Elite Squad, also from Padilha, just won the Berlin International Film Festival, which suggests the mixed blessing for Brazil's public relations will continue.
Two Brazilian films currently at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema show different facets of the nation's big cities (Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo), its citizens and the country's cinematic aesthetic. Compared with City of God's charging visual flourishes, Paulo Morelli's City of Men and Chico Teixeira's Alice's House play as more sedate, old-fashioned melodramas, and both strongly condemn a culture of absent fathers. City of Men dramatizes the plight of young men trying to rise above their impoverished, crime-ridden environment, while Alice's House quietly explores family frustrations, particularly those of a middle-aged mother.
Morelli's City of Men isn't a sequel to City of God so much as a stepson. After the success of City of God, Meirelles produced a Brazilian miniseries, "City of Men," in similar neighborhoods, and Morelli adapted the show for the big screen. The heart of the story could fit in with a black-and-white cautionary tale from the American studio era. The name of the film's central bit of prized turf, "Dead End Hill," evokes the street urchins of Hollywood's old "Dead End Kids."
Morelli engagingly introduces the setting as local gang leader Midnight (Jonathan Haagensen) surveys the spectacular rooftop view and decides to go to the beach. Like a royal court taking a picnic, Midnight's gang makes the long walk down to the shore, picking up followers and hangers-on as they wind through the cobbled, labyrinthine streets. Despite their squalor, the hilltop slum's hole-in-the-wall shops and twisted byways make strangely appealing cinematic subjects.
The group includes two noncriminal pals, Ace and Wallace, played by Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha (who each had supporting roles in City of God as youngsters). Both teenagers grapple with daddy issues. Nearly 18 years old, Wallace strives to find the father he never knew, partly to secure his dad's signature on his adult ID card. Meanwhile, Ace's father died of a gunshot when he was an infant, and now Ace seems spectacularly ill-equipped to handle the responsibilities of his own child. While his wife earns a living, Ace perpetually misplaces his son.
Compared with Brazil's more lurid, operatic thrillers, City of Men tells a smaller tale. Ace and Wallace seem unlikely to escape their situation, since neither is ruthless enough for crime nor smart enough for entrepreneurship. Silva's and Cunha's comfortable, naturalistic performances give the film a street-level credibility, even though the characters sometimes seem one-dimensional, particularly when the plot takes some melodramatic twists. Paternal revelations and an escalating gang war eventually place the friends on opposite sides.
Alice's House embraces some plot contrivances, too, and one character even says that the life of Alice (Carla Ribas) "would make a good soap opera." The word "house" in the title seems like a misnomer, as most of the film takes place in a three-bedroom tenement apartment too small for Alice, her taxi-driver husband Lindomar (Ze Carlos Machado), her elderly mother and Alice's three squabbling sons.
The family bickers over money and seeks release from their frustrations in sex – except for the grandmother (Berta Zemel), who faithfully listens to a radio psychic. Carmen works at a beauty parlor and swaps gossip with wealthy client Carmen (Renata Zhaneta). We gradually realize they're both lying outrageously about their happy sex lives. In a sharp, telling touch, Carmen needs frequent manicures because she's constantly biting her nails.
Coincidentally, it turns out that Carmen's husband was Alice's childhood sweetheart, and the old flames rekindle. At home, Lindomar treats the women like servants while carrying on an affair with a teen girl better suited for his sons. The brothers have their own underdeveloped tensions between each other, and all the pressures build to primal outbursts that solve few problems.
Chico Teixeira, making his narrative-feature debut, keeps the camera close to his characters. He creates a sexy chemistry in warmer scenes, particularly due to Ribas' earthy sensuality. The intimacy of Alice's House also captures the claustrophobia of people cooped up too closely for too long. Even the exterior shots never "open up" to drink in the neighborhoods and instead maintain the feeling of confinement.
Where City of God earned frequent comparisons to Goodfellas, the title and subject matter of Alice's House evokes another Martin Scorsese movie, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The kitchen-sink realism, measured tone and inconclusive ending of Alice's House all provide a reality check for international fans of Brazilian cinema. Brazil's residents are more likely to lead lives in houses like Alice's than in the city of gangsters.