City of God
Not long ago, Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles almost abandoned his cinematic career to farm chickens in Australia. Ironically, it’s a clucking, feathered fowl that jump-starts his electrifying gang epic, City of God. While one of the film’s wild-eyed, trigger-happy slum lords slices carrots, boils water, and sharpens knives in preparation for a raucous neighborhood barbecue, his would-be main course sprints away from the scene.
Then – boom!
Meirelles’ manic pinball of a camera follows the frustrated cook and his hungry party pals as they shuffle after the distraught bird. His lens eats the yellow dust churned up by flailing feet, ducks beneath speeding cars, bounces off crumbling stucco walls, and descends dizzying stairwells like a doomed foot soldier under fire.
Such fierce, sustained momentum is one reason City of God has received Oscar nominations for best director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, and editing.
But wait. Isn’t this the same movie that Roger Ebert praised as the best film of 2002, well over twelve months ago? Yes, indeed. Ebert and other enthusiasts screened City of God at film festivals before its official U.S. release date in 2003. Despite such raves, Academy voters snubbed the film for a best foreign film Oscar in 2002, most likely due to its limited accessibility.
After percolating for a year, however, the Academy has finally acknowledged City of God. Because the harrowing, grim crime drama was not officially released in America until January 2003, it was eligible for awards in categories other than best foreign film. Hence, its four nominations. Meirelles explains, “Because of the attention, the film is back in theatres in the U.S., Brazil, France, and Spain. It’s been given a second life.”
City of God is the most visually inventive, vibrant, and enthusiastic crime film since Pulp Fiction. Its introductory chicken-chase kicks us from one jarring, breakneck sequence to another, and the pace never wavers, even as Meirelles’ circle of characters grows like mushrooms after a thundershower. Meirelles hacks his decades-long story (from Paolo Lins’ 1997 book) into three manageable mini-films, each representing a separate slice of time in the notorious Brazilian slum Cidade de Deus, where criminal gangs rob, rape, and steal during unending turf wars.
The first act channels Sergio Leone in its desert earth tones and Western attitude, while a visually garish mid-section packed with disco and soul tunes convey the seventies’ disco era. City of God careens completely out of control during its final frames, a punching match of quick cutting that symbolizes the jarring hand-off in cartel power from pot to cocaine. Like some sinister street kid brandishing pistols and loaded on PCP, we stagger into a satanic Never Never Land of staccato gunfire and bloodstains, with enemies everywhere.
Viewers have compared Meirelles’ visual dynamics to other crime films, including Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. His use of title cards to divide City of God into a series of vignettes echoes the approaches of Quentin Tarantino and P.T. Anderson. Shape-shifting transformations from slick, sharp images to chaotic camera moves parallel Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (remember Henry Hill’s herky-jerky, coke-fueled paranoia as he struggled to whip up a dish of perfect spaghetti while whisking off his latest illicit shipment?).
The humble Meirelles concedes that such films have been influential, even throwing a few more references into the mix. “I would also include Ken Loach’s films on this list,” the 44-year-old director offers. “Robert Altman as well, in the way he uses many characters. Also Mike Leigh, in terms of his not using professional actors.”
Indeed, the majority of Meirelles’ inexperienced cast members were recruited directly from Rio de Janeiro’s slums, or favelas. “We did an acting workshop and had 200 boys coming every day. Me and Katia (Lund, co-director) were there eight hours a day. It was a lot of work. Then we rehearsed the film, after the workshop. We called a coach from Sao Paolo, Fatima Toledo, who prepared the actors.”
Such intense preparation created a natural acting style that somehow gels with the stylized editing and choreography in City of God. Unlike, say, the Matrix films, where special effects create a dimension completely detached from reality, City of God uses its fancy flourishes to immerse us into reality from different perspectives, then grounds itself with the unpretentious performances. We watch the cast of 106 children convey images of cocaine and pot manufacturing, soccer-playing, oceanside smooching, and cold-blooded shootouts, all from the here-and-now perspective of someone watching a six o’clock news flash.
Leandro Firmino da Hora, 23 years old at the time of production, is a standout as the amoral, trigger-happy “Little” Ze Pequeno, even though he had never acted before City of God. Alexandre Rodrigues, another unknown, is equally good as Rocket, an aspiring photographer who lacks the stomach for crime. Whether plotting to hijack a bus or taking a stab at store-robbing, Rodrigues’ inherent friendliness and good nature assure us that he will never follow through with such misdeeds. He suggests that perhaps Rocket will transcend the favelas and find a life outside of them.
City of God’s documentary-like realism takes on a disturbing immediacy, and its take-no-prisoners, tot-facilitated violence is often tough to take. One notorious scene involves Lil Ze’, the psychopathic teenage ruler of the slums, as he intimidates a wannabe gang of tiny pre-adolescents called The Runts. After shooting one pint-sized gangster through the foot, Ze’ orders another member to brandish his gun and kill a playmate. It’s a sickening, heartbreaking spectacle. The whimpers and tears look agonizingly real.
“That was totally Fatima’s work,” acknowledges Meirelles. “She did it. Sometimes when she was rehearsing with the kids, she didn’t want me to see what she was doing. One day, she asked me to leave while she worked two days with the boys. Then she called me to see that scene rehearsed, where one boy shoots the other, and is crying. I was shocked. I said, ‘you’re a monster.’ Then she said, ‘Cut,’ and the boy immediately stopped crying. He went out to play football, then came back and did it again. It was all acting.”
City of God also drapes itself in layers of subplot, resulting in a complex web of detail that can only be fully absorbed through repeated viewings. One surreal scene, for instance, shows Lil’ Ze’s ritual transformation from child to man, as he visits a sinister witch doctor’s candle-lit cathedral. “This amulet is your protector,” the elder explains, placing a necklace around the killer’s neck. Many viewers might easily miss the significance of this witch doctor’s insistence that Lil’ Ze not fornicate while wearing the amulet. Watch City of God a second time, however, it becomes clear that the hood’s violation of this command is the catalyst for his undoing.
“The scene with the witch doctor,” explains Meirelles, “comes from a religion brought to Brazil from Africa, called Candonble, that incorporates a lot of saints and entities, like gods that protect the sea and the winds. Different archetypes called orixas. In this scene, a very mean orixa – presented through the witch doctor - gives Lil’ Ze’ his power. But he is told that he can’t screw anybody with that amulet on. Later he rapes a girl. We don’t see the rape actually happen. Instead, there are three seconds showing only the amulet.”
Meirelles’ enthusiasm for his movie doesn’t overshadow the filmmaker’s grounded insistence that City of God was a group project, requiring the talents of a dedicated team. Katia Lund, credited as co-director, was hired on the strength of her street-savvy documentary, News from a Private War, which observed Rio’s slum gangs with the type of gritty starkness that Meirelles wanted. For the curious, Meirelles explains why Lund’s name is not attached to the film’s best director Oscar nomination, despite her title as co-director.
“Before City of God, I did two other co-directed films, where I split all of the decisions. With this film, however, I had worked on the project for three years before hiring Katia. She worked for 6 months to creating the acting workshop, then only four months on the film. Our relationship is kind of like that of pilot and copilot. She was not involved in the editing and cinematography, and all of the final decisions were mine.”
Meirelles and Lund have continued combining their talents for a Brazilian television series called City of Men, described by the former as “a mix of comedy and drama concerning two boys.” Don’t expect to find the program on your boob tube any time soon. Although he is currently attempting to market City of Men to the U.S. and U.K., Meirelles laments the fact that such countries “are not used to watching subtitled television.”
The director’s current focus, however, is the Oscar race, although he doubts his ability to steal the statue from Ring -leader Peter Jackson in the best director category. Meirelles is more optimistic about the chances of Daniel Rezende, up for best film editing. It’s easy to understand his reasoning: City of God takes the gonzoid, anything-goes editing scheme of Natural Born Killers and shoots it out of a cannon. Furious montages couple 16 and 35-millimeter film stocks with digital video, Matrix-style angles swerve 180 degrees, and grainy, hand-held camerawork sticks us right onto the grimy favela streets.
“I love the editing process,” Meirelles proclaims. “For me, it’s the best part of filmmaking. But the credit should go to Daniel. During shooting, I would edit in my own apartment every day, coming back from the set to spend an hour with him, watching his work. There’s a system we use while working together. I get all the dailies and watch them, then put little ink dots on interesting images or interpretations. A green dot means, this is interesting. But a red dot means, this absolutely has to be in the film!
“Daniel was 23 years old when he edited the film. He's brilliant. He used to work as a cameraman doing auditions for actors, then took on production assistant duties for me. I really think he deserves the Oscar. His work is really original. ‘Lord of the Rings,’ is very well edited, but it’s a classic action movie. Daniel’s style, in comparison, is very fresh.”
With City of God currently backed by Miramax’s thunderous promotional machine, Meirelles has been fielding press interviews around the clock. “Sorry if I’m slowing down,” he expresses quietly from a car cell phone, “but I’m tired. I’m on my way to the airport, where I’ll fly to London in two hours.” His current project is The Patient Gardener, a thriller starring Ralph Fiennes.
Before Meirelles puts his receiver down, he explains some unfinished business concerning the acrobatic chicken that evades Lil’ Ze’s fire pit during City of God’s opening shots. Staring anxiously as plucked comrades are immersed into boiling water and gang members salivate in expectation of a poultry-rich supper, the beaked bird’s performance overshadows those of his human counterparts as he tears down the street to evade being served up on a plate. Was a chicken-trainer on hand to elicit such expressive antics?
“Believe it or not,” Meirelles laughs, “that scene was completely improvised. In fact, it was done in one take. It was by chance that we pulled it off. Maybe the chicken heard that we were improvising. It definitely wasn’t planned.”
With that closing comment, Meirelles’ cell phone cuts out, and the director of City of God tends to his travel plans in the City of Angels.