The Brazilian sequel to City of God is the first great film of 2008!
In 2002, Fernando Meirelles City of God took the film world by storm. It shone a light on the hardships endured by the people who live in Brazil's 'favelas', poverty and crime-ridden shanty towns on the outskirts of the big cities. That film's success lead to the creation of the popular Brazilian television show, City of Men; which followed the antics of young Ace [Douglas Silva] and Laranjinha [Darlan Cunha] as they faced boyhood in the favelas.
Five years later, the series moves back to the big screen. Ace has become a young and woefully unprepared father. Laranjinha struggles to find out the true identity of his father. Burgeoning on manhood, their inner struggles pale in comparison to the violence in the gang war they find themselves stuck in. The film is absolutely brilliant. It is powerful in a way rarely seen in American cinema. I had a chance to discuss the film, its stars, and the fate of the favelas with director Paulo Morelli. Keep an eye on his career. The studios are already knocking on the door of the Brazilian auteur.
City of Men is the continuation and film adaptation of the popular Brazilian TV show. How did the actors adjust from working on the TV series to the film?
Paulo Morelli: For the film, I had one read-through with the cast and crew. Then I took the screenplay away and wouldn't let them look at it throughout the rest of the shoot. In the series they would never be allowed to read the screenplay, but this time I felt that I was no longer dealing with children but with real actors. I would tell them what the scene was about and then let them improvise freely. Then I was able to shape the scene on set. They are becoming better actors. It's been interesting to watch their progress as they grow from children into adults.
Is it easier to create a story about characters that already exist?
Paulo Morelli: It's easier in some ways because the characters were already there, but difficult because you have to push forward and flesh out their identities. That's why we choose two different themes to develop in City of Men, fatherhood and friendship. This way we could work with a large story arc as opposed to the short stories that were presented in the TV series. The two main characters, Ace [Douglas Silva] and Laranjinha [Darlan Cunha], have been friends since the beginning of the series. This film really begins to test that friendship.
How has your relationship evolved with the two main actors? Do you feel like they view you as a father figure?
Paulo Morelli: Maybe a little bit, we've spent a lot of time together over the last few years. I was just in Berlin with Douglas and it was a very pleasant experience. He's a young boy that came from the favelas and now I can show him a museum in Berlin. He's at the age where he can appreciate it. He had never really had a relationship with an older person that could open his mind to the rest of the world. It's been great for me to see him grow and mature into the person he now is.
Do you think that Brazilians who see City of Men will react against the horrifying murders which are depicted very accurately in the film?
Paulo Morelli: Yes, kind of, but you see the citizens of the favelas live under a dictatorship. The drug lords are very hard, cruel people. Then you have the police who are also very cruel in their own way. When they're not at war with each other, you have rival gangs at war. The people who live under this war are very poor, but generally good people and it's very difficult to know how to get a handle on this situation. The one thing I think City of God did was bring a realization to the rest of Brazil's citizens that this intense violence was going on in their own country.
What about the government? Has the government been forced to make improvements in the favelas?
Paulo Morelli: I used to say that art doesn't have that power. But Douglas [Silva] went to the Berlin Film Festival with me last week and told me that after the films were released, a number of programs have started up in the favelas. He felt that Brazil's middle class was becoming less discriminatory towards the people that lived in the favelas. But I don't believe that Brazil's government has really done anything.
Did you run into any issues while shooting such violent scenes on location?
Paulo Morelli: It was incredibly easy to shoot there. We really didn't run into any problems because the community was so cooperative with us. We asked permission from the "Association of Neighborhoods" who would, in turn, ask permission from the drug lords. The drug lords are really the 'Kings of the Hill'. They are the ones who have control over the life and death of their citizens. But they allowed us to shoot there and the whole community was very cooperative with us. We hired as many as we could to be extras or part of the crew.
Have you met people in the favelas interested in working behind the camera?
Paulo Morelli: Yes, in fact we've already started a small film school. It's part of an acting school that has been around for about fifteen years called "We from the Hills". Most of the actors of the film and the series came from that school. Fernando Meirelles started a branch called "We from the Cinema". It's a school for filmmakers.
What was different in the directing style you employed in City of Men from Fernando Meirelles, who directed City of God?
Paulo Morelli: Some aspects I feel were actually very similar and I tried to maintain some continuity because it's all one big project. The documentary-type aspects are similar: hand-held cameras, the method of rehearsing, the actors, the locations etc. But I decided that City of Men should be a more humane story than its predecessors. Thus, the aesthetics of the film are a little more controlled. We have a curve of colors for example. In the beginning of the film, the colors are more bright and saturated. At the exact mid-point, the colors become darker, more washed out. It becomes a different style than City of God. This film is not an epic about violence, but about these two characters growing up in the favelas and trying to survive. I didn't want to make "City of God II". My film is not about the drug dealers, it's about the community.
Have there been any thoughts to revisiting these characters ten or fifteen years down the line?
Paulo Morelli: That's exactly the idea. Ten years from now, I think we could make a good film about how the favelas have changed and how the main characters are doing as father figures. It will be interesting because their kids will be around the same age that they were when we started this whole process.
Big Hollywood came knocking for Fernando Meirelles after City of God, which resulted in him directing "The Constant Gardner". Are you receiving offers from the Hollywood studio system?
Paulo Morelli: I am considering some screenplays from the American film industry, nothing we can talk about yet, but I'd like to work in both my native country as well as America. If I can find a good story, I'd like to make a more international film.