'City of God' an awakening for Brazil

Times staff writer

Milling about in a crowd of 2,000 at the premiere of the Brazilian movie "City of God" was a small, understated man nicknamed Pequeno. A nobody to Brazil's biggest celebrities and entertainment industry insiders, he had achieved his own kind of notoriety as one of Rio de Janeiro's most wanted drug dealers.

As moviegoers filed into the theaters, the police nabbed Pequeno. The next day, the talk of Rio was not the success of the movie but the arrest of a local drug dealer at its premiere.

The incident marked another sharp curve in the wild ride for "City of God," a movie that served as a portal into Brazil's massive class divide. What made the film the country's biggest box office hit was the turnout of the middle and upper-middle classes. Yet this was no blockbuster movie with stars, full of action and adventure, sex or romance. It is a film starring unknown, slum-dwelling children clawing out an existence in the cities' favelas, or slums -- a distant topic for many well-to-do Brazilians.

Conversations with the filmmakers offered a revealing glimpse into the harsh life and hopelessness of the slums, Brazil's class strife and, for them at least, personal growth.

"Brazil is a country with two sides -- one side doesn't talk to the other side," co-director Fernando Meirelles said. "This is really a story told from the inside point of view [of the poor side] and that is why it is so shocking and so real."

The Portuguese-language film, which opened in the U.S. last Friday and was nominated for a Golden Globe, is Brazil's official entry for Academy Award consideration as best foreign language film.

Seen by a record 3.2 million Brazilians, the movie was even discussed by the country's new president, Luis Ignacio da Silva, in his campaign speeches. Meirelles was named entertainer of the year by one of Brazil's most prominent magazines, Esto E. (Da Silva was named man of the year by the same magazine.)

Set in Rio's most notorious slum, City of God, the film is based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the favela. City of God is a modern-day "Lord of the Flies," ruled by pitiless kids, called runts, armed with automatic weapons, who make a living selling drugs. Their firepower and ruthlessness are matched only by the corrupt police, who play a lethal game of cat-and-mouse with the kids. The favela's poor residents are caught in the middle, but in many cases their allegiance lies with the drug dealers who provide them necessities such as food and medicine.

The bleakness of the film's topic is relieved by its humor, fast-paced editing and soundtrack that give it more of a "Pulp Fiction" feel than the gravitas of "Traffic." At times it seems Meirelles' style as a commercial director is in a tug-of-war with co-director Katia Lund's documentarian feel of life in the ghetto. The result is a sort of hipster version of favela life, similar only in content to Hector Babenco's acclaimed 1981 film "Pixote."

Lund, a 36-year-old Brown University graduate, was instrumental in finding the right children for the parts and suffusing the film with authenticity. She had spent years researching in the slums making the 2001 documentary "News From a Private War," which she co-directed with Joao Salles and which chronicles the vicious cycle of violence, hopelessness and poverty of the favela. Previously, she had helped cast the 1996 Michael Jackson video "They Don't Care About Us," which was filmed in City of God.

Witnessing the squalor opened her eyes to a reality far removed from her privileged life in Sao Paulo.

"I'm a Brazilian," said Lund, a striking redhead with wavy hair whose parents are American. "I read newspapers and I had no idea what that society looks like. I thought, 'Why isn't anybody doing anything about this?' "

It used to be that the violence was confined within the mazed walls of the slums. But increasingly, kidnappings, burglaries and carjackings are seeping out into middle- and upper-middle-class areas.

"Finally people are waking up that if we don't do anything now this will be a big problem, like in Colombia or Peru," Meirelles said.

Lund added, "In Brazil there are few opportunities to talk about serious subjects between the classes and this movie has given them something to talk about."

With its cinema verite, "City of God" joins other films like Mexico's "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and Brazil's "Central Station," said Walter Salles, co-producer of "City of God" and director of "Central Station." Brazilian filmmakers, in particular, are turning their lens to the nation's social inequities. In 1999, Carlos Diegues remade the classic film "Orfeu," set in the slums, and this year, veteran director Hector Babenco is expected to release his film on the infamous Brazilian prison "Carandiru."

"There is a visceral, urgent quality [to] this new wave of films," said Walter Salles, on location in Peru for his next film, "The Motorcycle Diaries." "Yes, these films are political but not dogmatic. And they certainly make use of modern cinematic tools to reach the public at large."

Making the movie touched both filmmakers in profound ways as well.

Before he made the film, Meirelles was one of Brazil's hottest commercial directors. He is co-founder of O2 Films, Brazil's largest production company and one of the principal financiers of "City of God," which cost more than $3 million. While shooting the movie, he realized he desired something more.

"In the favela, I learned a lot about happiness and how to spend your life," said the 47-year-old blue-eyed Brazilian native, casually dressed in a black polyester shirt and beige pants.

As a result, "I spent one year barefoot and in Bermudas. I realized I had been unhappy," he said with a broad smile as he crunched on dry toast and sipped tea at breakfast recently in Santa Monica.

Despite the hardships in their lives, people in the favelas have an enviable sense of joy, he said. The success of "City of God" has freed him to direct feature films full time. His next project, a story about globalization, will take him to five countries, including China and the United States. Eventually, he says, he would like to direct a film in Hollywood.

Although "City of God" may have helped liberate Meirelles from the stressful pace of his ad agency, it has been a reversal of fortune for the kids in the film.

Meirelles wanted to cast nonactors and favela residents. To prepare the kids for the film, the production established acting workshops and went through exhausting rehearsals, at which children were taught how to trigger emotions on demand. Many of the children are now working actors.

Although the filmmakers wanted to shoot in City of God, it proved too dangerous. They were constantly at the whim of teenage warlords who claimed a particular corner of the favela as their own.

"We never knew if we were talking to the right people and it was very uncomfortable.... Everyday we had a different problem," Meirelles said. "All the bosses are very young -- like 19 or 18 years old -- and you can't do a feature depending on teenagers."

So they shot the film at another favela, High City.

In an effort to include all the film's participants, many of the favela dwellers were sent invitations to the premiere. This prompted police officials to think the filmmakers had invited Pequeno (Little One), who came to the premiere with his family. But Meirelles and Lund say they never met him, much less invited him. Their denials didn't keep police from bringing them into headquarters for questioning. Lund had previously been interrogated by police after her documentary aired.

The filmmakers shrug off the incident and look back on it as a bit comedic.

"I knew it was just a mistake," he said. "I think that they were just teasing me, trying to get back at me for how I portrayed [the police] in the film."

"The police were just offended because they have no control over the favelas," Lund said. It didn't help matters that Lund was quoted as saying if she had been a favela dweller, she too might be a drug dealer. But she maintains empathy is the key to finding a solution.

"I wanted to place myself in their skin for a while and wonder if I was born here, what would I do?" she said. "We need to figure out what to do about this situation and how we become integrated as one society."

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