Rodrigues with Alice Braga in Fernando Mereilles’ City of God.

Every once in a while a foreign film comes along that breaks out
of the art houses and works its way into the mainstream. The film
begins its life elsewhere, a film festival, usually. Critics gush
over it in their festival columns and Hollywood execs clamor for
meetings with the director.

In the ’60s, these films came courtesy of Bergman,
Fellini and Godard. But these days, as the new Brazilian film City
of God
attests, more than ever these films are coming from Latin

Fernando Meirelles’ sprawling, violent, tender, visceral
crime epic does for Brazilian cinema what Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También did for Mexican cinema.
While many of their European counterparts are busy trying to beat
Hollywood at its own game, these Latino auteurs are revitalizing
their own national cinemas, not only with their technical virtuosity,
but with frank, warts-and-all honesty.

City of God tells the story of two decades
of life (the ’60s and ’70s) in the Brazilian favela, Ciudad de
(City of God). Favelas began as government-organized
communities for low-income families outside of Rio de Janeiro. But
as the idealistic ’60s gave way to the rough and tumble ’70s, the
government began to lose control of these projects. The drug trade
flourished, as did the rampant violence that accompanied it and
the favelas fell under the control of drug lords. But a favela drug
lord was only king until someone more determined and ruthless came
along. When they did, they brought gangs of impoverished boys who
would kill—and be killed for them—at the drop of a hat. In City
of God, a young man who lived to the age of 20 was considered fortunate.

In his first interview with MM, Fernando Meirelles
talks about the improvisational nature of his film, the current
international popularity of Latin American cinema and why it baffles
him that critics would call his new film “stylistic.”

Ryan Mottesheard (MM): Miramax
picked up
City of God just before it premiered at Cannes.
At what point did you know you had something special on your hands?

Fernando Meirelles (FM): I
didn’t. Miramax was supposed to get involved in the project before
shooting, because this film was attached to a Walter Salles project
starring Benicio del Toro. But when Benicio broke his finger and
couldn’t do the film, Miramax said, “Well, our deal was for Redemption,

not City of God.”

When this happened, I was already rehearsing, the
crew was ready, we were two or three weeks away from shooting—so
we decided to finance it ourselves. We couldn’t stop. We were so
involved—so excited to do it—that I said, ‘I have to see this through
to the end, no matter what happens.’ At the time, I thought it was
the stupidest decision I’d made in my entire life. I was spending
all of my money on a project with non-professional actors, shooting
in a favela and making a violent movie. It was a very stupid
decision. But when I finished editing the film, we showed it to
Miramax and they picked up the North American rights.

MM: Has it opened in Brazil yet?

FM: Yes, [in late August]. It was very good;
much better than we expected. The critics are split into two parts:
many journalists and the President saw the film and really liked
it and thought it was really faithful to reality. However, there
is another group of critics who think the film is senseless, that
it’s like a music video, a pop thing, very shallow. They simply
destroyed the movie. There’s no middle opinion with the film.

MM: You co-directed two films prior to City
of God, a movie called Domesticas and a children’s film,
correct? What were these two films like?

FM: The children’s film wasn’t my film. A friend
of mine called me a few weeks before shooting to ask me to help
her. But I did this other film called Domesticas (Maids) about maids in Brazil. It was very small, independently done.
I made it with a friend of mine, Nando Olival, and I did it to learn
how to make a feature. Before that I’d worked in television and
commercials, but I had no experience in making a feature.

MM: What did you take from Maids that you were able to bring to City of God? They’re not very similar.

FM: While visually the film is very different
from City of God, in terms of performance I think they are
similar. In Maids, I used professional but unknown actors
and there’s this way of acting that’s quite similar to City of
. People watch Maids and think it’s almost a documentary;
they don’t see them as actors playing maids. We didn’t workshop
it as extensively as City of God, but we worked on it a lot.
They would create and recreate their own dialogues.

MM: I know you devised an intense actors’
workshop in Rio for
City of God with the help of Katia Lund.
[Meirelles and Lund saw some 3,000 prospective actors, culling them
down to a final 100 from which the final roles were cast.]

FM: I worked on the script in Sao Paolo, my
home, and when it was ready I moved to Rio to create this school
so these amateur actors could bring the roles of City of God to life. Katia Lund had been an assistant director on Central
and other Brazilian films, so I called her to help me
form this acting school. She made this incredible documentary about
drug dealers in Brazil called News From a Particular War, where she spent two years interviewing drug dealers, police and
people in the community. She was very familiar with the subject
matter, which is why I called her. She came aboard only to help
with the actors, but she had excellent ideas with the script and
helped me out a lot. So she got a co-directing credit. But after
we finished shooting, she was out of the process.

Alexandre Rodrigues in City of God.

MM: The workshopping process sounds like
Mike Leigh’s work

FM: I love Mike Leigh. He’s my first reference
for acting. We do the same thing he does—we don’t give the script
to the actors. We allow them to create their characters and we rehearse
a lot. And during this rehearsal, the characters rewrite their dialogue.
Sometimes we make suggestions here and there, but mostly they create
their own lines.

MM: City of God is very stylish, but it
also has a looseness to it. I assume your work with the actors also
informed this visual style.

FM: Certainly. The film is very different from
the beginning to the end. We shot it in three different ways: the
first part of the film is more classical—we were using a 40mm lens,
tripods, dollies. I’d give the actors some marks. But by the end
of the film, it was like losing control of the production. In the
last part, we never told the actors where to go, even in subsequent
takes of a scene. In each take they would be in different positions
and they might say different lines. It was really a free experience
for them—and the camera.

The last part of the film was just trying to catch
everything that was happening. The story is about the state losing
control of this neighborhood. In the beginning, everything’s controlled,
the Ciudad de Deus housing project, even the landscape. But
by the end, it was like the crew was losing control of the film.
But this is a film about losing control, so it fit.

Also, everyone is saying the film is “stylized,”
but I don’t think so. I don’t see why. We shot almost the entire
film handheld. We only used natural light. Even the interiors, we
only put lamps on the wall—you can see the lamps in some of the
shots—and that was it. There was no “lighting,” no electrical crew.
It was so natural.

MM: I think it must be from the editing.

FM: Sure, but when I see a Kurosawa movie,
that’s stylization. So I guess, what isn’t stylization? Every time
you create a frame, you’re deciding on visual options. Even if it’s
a boring frame, it’s an option. I don’t get why people think City
of God
is so stylized.

MM: Latin American films are beginning to
reach a wider audience, from
Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá
También to a wave of Argentine films. And now there’s City of God following on the heels of Walter Salles’ work.

Do you have any thoughts on this current synergy?

FM: One thing that I see in all these films
is the stories are being told in an original way. In Latin America,
we’re not trying to copy the American way of shooting. I know that
me or Alejandro González Iñárritu or Pablo
Tropero from Argentina, we’re telling these stories in a way I think
makes it fresh. And I think we have very urgent stories to tell. MM