Good things seem to come in threes for director Fernando Meirelles.
Meirelles’ third feature film, “City of God,” sold more than 3 million admissions on its home turf last year — a record for a Brazilian film in the past decade. Subsequently, it has gone on to gross $3 million in the U.K. — where it opened earlier this year with the third-largest opening weekend ever for a foreign-language film.
Distribbed by Miramax in the U.S., it is off to a strong start at almost $114,442 in B.O.
Meirelles, 48, will follow in the footsteps of Ang Lee and Jean-Pierre Jeunet as the recipient of ShoWest’s Intl. Achievement in Filmmaking Award. Which is something fairly remarkable when you consider that the sprawling, hyperviolent “City of God” is a long way from the crowdpleasing thrills and laughs of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Amelie.”
Yet, audiences the world over, in arthouses and multiplexes alike, are connecting with “City of God.”
“I think the film has a certain freshness,” Meirelles says from his Sao Paulo office.
He’s adamant that he didn’t want the film to be formulaic. “If I had sent this script to a script doctor in Hollywood before shooting the film, for sure I would have gotten 60 pages of notes telling me what was wrong,” Meirelles says.
“They would’ve told me the film has no star; the main character is not the center of the film; the film doesn’t have three acts, it’s very episodic, has too many characters, has no focus. Even technically, we shot the film mixing 16mm and 35mm stock. We used almost no light, shooting in a very naturalistic way, and we did all the post in only two months. All those things combined make the film a very different experience for the audience.”
Based on a fact-based novel by Paulo Lins, “City of God” is a multigenerational chronicle of a group of childhood friends from a housing project (nicknamed City of God) in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Most of their lives, invariably, drift into drug-dealing and gangsterism.
And as Meirelles relates their stories, the film jumps backward and forward in time, following one character for a while and then doubling back on itself to follow another.
“A lot of people have thought that the film has something to do with ‘Pulp Fiction,’ but I think it’s really the opposite intention,” suggests Meirelles. “When Tarantino changes the chronological order of the story, he does that as a game with the audience — he does it on purpose to create a confusion that’s very stimulating. But in ‘City of God,’ my intention was exactly the opposite — not to create confusion, but to explain, to try to help the audience follow each character.”
Despite the film’s international success, Meirelles always intended to tell a fundamentally local story. “Middle-class people like me in Brazil don’t know what it’s like to live inside this other country, which is also Brazil, but which seems like being in Africa or on some other planet,” he says.
“So, I decided to do this film with my camera not in the middle-class part of the city, but inside the slums, using real locations and boys from the hood. My goal was to show a middle-class audience — people who go to malls and shopping centers to see films — what’s happening on the other side.”
Indeed, Meirelles’ efforts have paid off handsomely, and not just in terms of box office glory. Brazil’s newly-elected president, “Lula” Da Silva, has praised “City of God” as an important social document and the film is the impetus for a government-sponsored program to rebuild Brazil’s slums, starting with the real City of God.
“For me, this is the best news,” exudes Meirelles, “because while I thought the film would provoke some debates, now it’s going to change City of God, and it’s such a pleasure to know that in a very little way I’m responsible for that.”