Fernando Meirelles is incontestably the face of modern Brazilian cinema. Not only has he been successful in bringing mass international recognition to the long neglected favelas of Rio de Janeiro through his directing of movies such as City of God (2003), but he has also asserted a solid position within the North American film industry with films such 360 (2011). The response the former received after its release was unprecedented in national cinema. Internationally speaking, City of God, or Cidade de Deus, was also very well recognized by critics as well as the general public.
More than simply national and international revenue as well as regard, however, the movie provoked extraordinary debate in the Brazilian media and amongst intellectual circles about the representation of poverty and crime by Meirelles . Through the analysis of the cinematic elements of his most acclaimed -and most criticized- creation, City of God, we are not only better able to understand Fernando Meirelles as a director, but also appreciate the discussion he raises through the culture and context of Brazilian cinema.
Meirelles’ movies, most notably City of God, heavily uses movement as a means of progression and features a rhythmic editing of scenes. The opening sequence of City of God, in particular, utilises fast, choppy editing designed to launch the spectator into the chaotic streets of the favela. Some of the first images the audience are confronted with are the violent sharpening of a knife rapidly cross-cut with shots of a runaway chicken being pursued through narrow urban streets.
These scenes all occur to the jubilant rhythms of Latin music, and the runaway chicken, in its attempt to escape slaughter, leads the spectator to the first and most dramatic point in the film’s narrative, a heavily armed standoff between the ruling gang of Cidade de Deus and the police. Caught in the middle of these two warring groups is a young man, Rocket, armed only with a camera. At this point the shot rotates 360° around Rocket and rapidly transports the viewer back in time to an earlier point in the narrative.
With the the exuberant spurts of movement and editing, the director effectively engages the viewer with its dynamic atmosphere and builds momentum to critical scenes as he introduces the favela . Another stylistic characteristic of Meirelles’ films include using spatial and temporal locus, while heavily manipulated, as a medium in which a multitude of characters are deeply explored. City of God remains a stellar example of this.
Although Rocket is the narrator within the movie and the single aspirational “voice of reason”, Li’l Ze, Knockout Ned, The Tender Trio are all other characters that are equally as, if not more, important to understanding the story. Their backgrounds are visualised and episodically explored through a series of non-linear flashbacks, which connect each character to the other . It can be argued that the director’s intent in doing this is to allow the audience to be invested in the story’s substance rather than focusing on a single character.
The same approach is used in Domesticas (2001), a story about 5 maids in Sao Paulo and 360 (2011), which weaves together the stories of a wide array of people from Paris, London, Bratislava, Vienna, and Rio . He himself has stated in an interview, “Every time I think about films, I think about talking about something, and using characters to talk about whatever I want to talk about”. Therefore, it can be suggested that despite the intricate characters that Meirelles presents, the narrative is arguably the most fundamental component he wishes to convey in his works.
The authentic feel of his movies, proven through Meirelles’ use of actors that were, in fact, residents of favelas in lieu of professional actors, and his desire to apply his vision to discuss gritty issues within Brazil , has suggested that Meirelles’ movies are a continuation of the Cinema Novo movement. This ‘New-Wave’ style of experimental filmmaking was practised in Brazil during the 1950s and 60s, and heavily inspired by Italian neo-realism .
However, this claim has been heavily criticized by some theorists of Latin American cinema that disagree and claim that Meirelles’ depicts an artificial ‘cosmetics of hunger’ as opposed to the ‘aesthetics of hunger’ which was urged throughout the movement . The term, ‘aesthetics of hunger’ first appears as the title to a 1965 manifesto by celebrated Brazilian director and leader of Cinema Novo, Glauber Rocha. In his manifesto, Rocha called for a certain style of filmmaking, one which would inspire revolution and accurately reflect the impoverished lives and experiences of those living in Third World Latin America.
He emphasised that Latin American films should defend the idea of both a national and ‘imperfect cinema’ which would not only treat hunger as a theme but also be ‘hungry’ in their own impoverished means of production. For Rocha, Cinema Novo would reject the superficiality of Hollywood to deal with local anxieties and speak directly to the nation’s lower class. However, Meirelles has been criticized for distorting this notion by transforming the favela into an exotic territory, where characters are devoid of an authentic revolutionary path in order to appeal to western masses.
Critics of the film have interpreted it as an example of ‘the cosmetics of hunger’, largely as a result of its mass appeal, suggesting that it is far removed from the fiercely national cinema of the ‘aesthetics of hunger’ and its commitment to realism. The exhilarating display of editing, popular music and camera work has led some viewers to brand movies that such City of God and Domesticas as simply displays that romanticizes poverty and crime in Brazil .
They have declared that City of God is more concerned with attracting a global audience than it is at actually offering its viewers an accurate representation of a world ravaged by violence . Therefore, in being considered as ‘cosmetics of hunger’, Fernando Meirelles works are criticized as being exactly what Rocha feared Brazilian cinema had become, “beautiful but innocuous; rational but fatigued; reflexive but impotent; ‘cinematic’ but useless” .
Nevertheless, City of God is a contemporary example of Latin American cinema which, through its evocative use of visual language and narrative storytelling, has successfully managed to engage a mass audience of international spectators. Whether or not his works conform to ‘cosmetics of hunger’ rather than its ‘aesthetics’ is a subject of considerable debate, and Fernando Meirelles’ ability to spark such a discussion about Brazilian cinema, as internationally as he has, is arguably his most significant impact on the film industry.