City of Men is a TV spin-off from the film City of God, but it is not a diluted derivative. City of Men tones down the violence and uses it as a backdrop for some universal themes of adolescence: status, identity, friendship and, of course, sex. It successfully blends these familiar themes with ones of poverty, racism and corruption to create a vivid picture of life in the favella with which we can all identify, even if conditions there are far from our own.
Each episode is a self contained story, a densely packed small film, centred around the life of two teenage boys. Some of the episodes are more edgy than others and as the series progresses it seems to soften. But even in the episode 'It Has to be Now', which is principally about teenage love-sickness and frustrated desire, there is a pervasive backdrop of social exclusion, poverty and impending violence. The final episode, 'Hot Spot', hardens right back and is, for TV, violent.
The performances are said to be mostly improvised and are utterly convincing. There is a lot of wit throughout the series, always understated, and the humour is all the more effective because of its tragic context. There are occasional scenes of kindness which stand out like an 'Amelie' in a war zone. Visually it's a treat: conventional film gives way to video and Super-8, and there's a lot of hand-held camera, sophisticated colour grading and even animation.
I cannot say whether I prefer the TV series to the film, they are too different. City of Men has to be judged as TV and as such, it's one the best things I've seen. I would like to see more, but it may be that if the series is continued it will become a formula. Perhaps the seven episodes we have are enough. They are a gem.