Ciudad de M portrays a group of friends in Lima who are willing to try almost anything to get by and get ahead. But in the end it's never quite clear how seriously we are to take either their plight or their crimes. This is not exactly the milieu of the urban poor; rather, these are lower-middle class or perhaps even middle class kids who have fallen on hard times, although we are never quite told why or how. They are overgrown children without parents who lack role models or contacts and so struggle to figure out how to become fully adult.
When we're introduced to the group, they are a soccer team knocked out of competition when the eponymous "M" fails to score even faced with an almost open goal. Naturally enough, in the changing room afterwards his team-mates bitterly complain at the fact that the has cost them all the opportunity to progress. As the film continues, however, it's not obvious if we should likewise criticize M for failing to make good on the chances he's given, or sympathize with the fact that these are at best only half-chances, dreams or scams.
For M is looking for a job, and at the outset he takes his task seriously, dressing up in suit and tie, paying an agency who guarantee him at least three leads a day, and queuing up for interviews. Nothing comes of his efforts, though, and meanwhile his landlady takes his stereo and his girlfriend walks out on him. While if M's vision of social ascent (or recuperation) is to come as a loyal employee, his friends try other approaches: one reconditions a beat-up car and starts working as a taxi driver; two others plan to become entrepreneurs and small-time businessmen by growing gardenias on a plot of land; and Pacho, who is both in some ways the leader of the group and always off to one side, is working on a still bigger plan.
Pacho claims to have met a Bolivian who needs mules to take coke to Miami. In return for transporting the drugs, the couriers stand to gain passports, visas, a ticket to the US, and $25,000 in cash.
M spends most of the film teetering on the edge of deciding whether or not he wants in on this risky scheme. While he's making up his mind, he is offered a job in construction, but quits after a day fed up, and another friend fixes him work in sales, commission only, but he packs that in, too, without ever really giving it ago. Again, are we to condemn him for his indolence (for above all M's passion seems to be for sleep) or to criticize a society whose worst failing may be the fact that it never quite fails its young, always giving the impression that they fail themselves.
In the end, its appropriate that we never learn M's real name. (The scene's most arresting scene involves one of his friends pointing a pistol at him demanding he reveal his name, but even then he keeps quiet.) For M is a cipher, who spends his time reacting rather than acting. Faced with the chance to do something, he is paralyzed as he was with the ball at his feet and the goal before him. Even when he finally agrees to take the drugs to Miami, he inevitably fucks up, allowing himself to be swept away in a self-destructive farewell melée in which the group get drunk and coked up and return to their old high school to trash the place.
But the school is already deserted and abandoned. There's no authority left to blame or betray. M is at best a Peruvian Bartleby, endlessly saying no, but the problem is that there's nobody to say no to.
YouTube Link: the first ten minutes of the movie.