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Cidade dos Homens (City of Men)

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The muse of constant daydreams, Rio de Janeiro features in many a movie during the first hundred years or so of cinema, with tremendous effect. Decades of colorful images of dancing beauties and pristine beaches have elevated the city to metaphorical heights. To utter the word Rio is to pray for paradise. However, the work of human hands eventually fail in their attempt to reach the heavens, and Rio is no different. Closer inspection reveals blemishes amidst its beauty. And contrary to the vast majority of the oeuvre of film about Rio de Janeiro, some focus more on the flaws of the great city rather than conceal them with mascara and eyeliner. The 2007 Cidade dos Homens is one such film.

Indeed, perhaps no other city in the world simultaneously captures and threatens the imagination like Rio de Janeiro. Stark, jungle-covered spurs of coastal mountains and world famous beaches highlight a divine landscape populated by lovely multi-hued Cariocas and form a tropical cradle where a vivacious, hedonistic culture of flourishes, erupting yearly during the week of Carnaval.

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Yet all is not idyllic in this would-be utopia. Rio's picturesque Calçada Portuguesa paved ruas are rife with dangers that contrast its Dionysian charm. Social and economic inequality, exacerbated by a rampant illicit drug trade, has made Rio de Janeiro one of the most violent cities in the world. The reality of the city's sun soaked beaches in the affluent Zona Sul most frequented by visitors is jarringly different from that of the life in the impoverished favelas carved into the hillsides like human nests.

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It is a common contradiction to those familiar with Rio, Brazil and the continent as a whole. And one that echoes the famous words of Eduardo Galeano in his famous description of the Latin American curse. Latin America is poor, because it is so rich. Blessed with beauty and riches perverted by the greed of those who seek and doom them. Brazil, Rio do not escape this fate either.

Miscategorized by many critics as a sequel to the 2002 breakthrough hit Cidade de Deus – which, I must add at the risk of arrogance, is simply one of the best films ever made — Cidade dos Homens is better described as the cinematic finale to the television series by the same name, itself a spin-off of the original movie. The television series had little play outside of Brazil, although it did have run on the US-based Sundance Channel.

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Understandably then, viewers unfamiliar with the series and expecting a continuing of the Cidade de Deus plot, may become confused by the different settings – Deus' 1970s Rio compared to Homens present day Rio – and the placement of the same actors playing different characters. However another key protagonist of all three – Rio de Janeiro — and its favelas in particular, remains essentially the same.

Favela is a uniquely Brazilian world with no symmetrical English translation. It can mean shantytown, slum or ghetto, yet neither of these terms describes it appropriately. The unofficial story is that the word favela was originally used as the name of a hardy, thorny bush, Jatropha phyllacantha, common in the semi-arid Brazilian Northeast known as the Sertão.

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The word's current usage began when the soldiers and refugees from the 1897 Canudos Civil War settled in Rio de Janeiro. Abandoned by the government, and with nowhere to go, they squatted on a hill known as Morro do Providencia near the city's docks, making do as best they could with whatever they could scavenge. Soon the hill began to be known as Morro do Favela, in reference to their time spent in the Brazilian Northeast.

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Throughout the twentieth century, as different social and economic forces pulled destitute Brazilians into Rio de Janeiro and other urban centers in search of opportunity, the favelas multiplied and their populations boomed. Over 100 years after Morro do Favela's founding, an estimated 17% of Rio de Janeiro's population, almost 1 million people, lives in favelas. The largest favela, Rocinha, boasts a population of about 150,000 residents.

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Favelas typically consist of haphazard self-constructed housing that are unlicensed on lands that are occupied illegally. While built randomly with little planning, networks of stairways and sidewalks allow passage through them. Often the favelas are inaccessible by vehicle, due to their narrow and irregular streets and walkways and often steep inclines. Electricity is available, sometimes pilfered from far off electric poles.

These densely populated, squalid areas are often crowded onto hillsides and therefore suffer from frequent landslides during heavy rain. In recent decades, favelas have been troubled by drug-related crime and gang warfare. Other serious ills include the lack of adequate sewage systems.

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Yet, despite the understandable feelings of misery such conditions may produce, the favelas are not without their triumphs, and hope, like the communities themselves, persists against the inhospitable conditions of its environment, much like the favela's leafy namesake.

The author Robert Neuwirth writes in his 2004 study Shadow Cities: A Billion Urban Squatters, A New Urban World, the favelas are full of contrasts. “Smokey Robinson and samba. A sidewalk café in the squatter neighborhood. Illegal houses with the best views in town. Permanent buildings in an impermanent community…And from that humble origin, against all odds, they produced something complex and sometimes harsh and unruly. They produced a new city.”

During the 100 plus years of their existence, favelas have been both a source of shame and pride for Brazilians. Shame, as the shantytowns serve as constant symbols of the Brazilian state's failure to provide for their citizens and the nations ills. Pride, because of what the favelados been able to accomplish on their own despite such unfavorable odds.

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For example, music, literature, and art are not alien to the favela. Much of the samba that has been composed for generations was developed in these hilly cultural laboratories. These days the music of choice in the favela is Funk Carioca or Baile Funk, a controversial and overtly sexual blend of stripped down Miami Bass and Brazilian percussion with rapping and singing over the beats.

In addition, several books and films have been made about and in the favelas, including, of course, Cidade de Deus and Cidade dos Homens. Most notable among them may be the 1959 Marcel Camus classic, Orfeu Negro. The film was adapted from a play written by the legendary poet Vinicius de Moraes, who also co-wrote the “Girl from Ipanema”, and is considered a seminal figure in the history of Bossa Nova.

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In an ironic twist of fate, in some ways, favelas are in. Adventurous, middle-class cariocas climb the hills at night for the parties, known as some of the best in the city. Funk carioca has caught on worldwide, and its better known DJs and producers travel to perform in the US, Europe and Japan. And visitors to Rio de Janeiro have a plethora of favela tours to choose from, should they choose to stray from the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.

Films like Cidade dos Homens and others like it have given the favela a coat of ghetto glam that only the intoxicating power of cinema is capable of doing. Lest the viewer be duped to believe otherwise, the misery continues. And as the lessons of its film constantly attest, the real life drama is a story of survival that too few achieve. It is perhaps put best by the Cidade de Deus tagline. “Fight and you'll never survive. Run and you'll never escape.” – Alvaro Eduardo Rojas

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