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Fernando Meirelles: Concerned Moralist from Sao Paulo

Fernando Meirelles

Since the mid-1990’s the Brazilian cinema has been considered as one of the most exciting cinematographies in the world. Retomada, the revival of the Brazilian cinema was possible thanks to Jose Carlos Avellar, who in 1992, founded RioFilme, a company that financed and distributed new films.

Since the mid-1990’s the Brazilian cinema has been considered as one of the most interesting cinematographies in the world. Retomada, the revival of the Brazilian cinema was possible thanks to Jose Carlos Avellar, who in 1992, founded RioFilme, a company that financed and distributed new films. Two names are symbols of the revival: Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, the best known Brazilian filmmakers at the moment. Meirelles has a debt of gratitude to pay to Salles who produced Cidade de Deus – a film that made Meirelles famous worldwide.

However, before he became famous Meirelles had to go through a lot. Born on November 9, 1955, in Sao Paulo, he got a university degree in architecture. Although the film was always one of his passions and during his studies, he started a production company called Olhar Eletronico (EO), which enabled him and his friends to make videos, TV commercials and TV shows for children. In 1986 they made a documentary film Olhar Eletronico. Two years later in 1988, Meirelles, together with Fabrizia Pinto, directed his first, religious coverage, fiction film Menino Maluquinho 2: A Aventura, awarded with an Honorable Mention at the Children’s Cinema Competition Jury at 2000 Cartagena Film Festival. The year 2001 brought another of his directing coproductions Domesticas awarded, i.e. with the Grand Prix at 2002 Toulouse Latin America Film Festival. This time he shared his director’s chair with Nando Olival.
After his first successes, Meirelles decided to work on the subject he had been thinking about for years. The new project was meant to be based on the novel by Paulo LinsCidade de Deus, on which Meirelles worked together with Katia Lund. And so in 2002 his first feature-film and also Meirelles’ best-known film was made, titled as same as a book it was based on – Cidade de Deus.

Paulo Lins described on 700 pages a young boy’s childhood and growing up in one of the biggest Brazilian favelas called Cidade de Deus in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a fickle name because Brazilian favelas instead look like places God forgot a long time ago.  People, abandoned by the state and jammed in a small space (as for the size of the population living there), live day-to-day on the brink of poverty with no chance and no hopes to get out of that hell. Indeed, it’s an internal reality that is ruled by crime and brutality. For the favela rules are the rules of those who hold power, the drug mobs always fighting to widen their influence zones. It’s the world in which one has to grow up fast because every „self-respecting” inhabitant of that human trash becomes a gangster as a young boy. The main protagonists of Meirelles’ film are just those boy-gangsters, whose lives he talks about and whose perspectives we watch their surrounding world from. The Meirelles film tells a story of the Brazilian slums, it tells something significant about our reality, in which poor districts and a percentage of people living outside the so-called ‘brackets of society’ begin to dangerously outnumber the percentage of people living in civilised conditions. Thus Fernando Meirelles provoked the awkward question, especially for decision makers. What constitutes social standards nowadays and if eurocentric self-satisfaction of some achievements in our civilisation is a bit over the top?

The socially active cinema became, only because of this film, his visiting card. In a similar tone, he made his next movie The Constant Gardener (2005), a movie adaptation of spy novel by John Le Carre. This time Meirelles filmed a thriller which takes place in Kenya. A starting point for the diagnosis of activities of pharmaceutical consortiums active in the Black Continent is a story of a complicated marriage between a British diplomat Justin Quale and an activist from a humanitarian organisation, Tess. Following Justin, who first suspects his wife of cheating on him and then on his attempts to unravel her mysterious death which happened in somewhat vague circumstances, the audience sets out for a journey inside Africa. However, it is not a land known from postcards or an image Karen Blixen drew at the beginning of the last century. Everyone setting out for this journey must be prepared for a land stricken with disaster, poverty and death. The story of Justin and Tess and their struggle is a pretext for showing unpardonable practices of global pharmaceutical companies testing their new medicines on ill Africans. Under the guise of carrying out humanitarian aid, they treat masses of terminally ill people as an experiment. For the pharmaceuticals companies, this means heaps of profits by shortening the testing stage before new medicines are launched on the market, the western market, of course. Once again Meirelles – a moralist gave us a pretty pessimistic view of our modern world.

Cidade de Deus and The Constant Gardener aim the sting of criticism at very real happenings present in our world. They show people set in a carefully recreated scene, very real indeed (films were shot, with mafia bosses consent, in the real Cidade de Deus and African slums). In his next and latest production, Blindness (2008), Meirelles changed this point of view. He focuses on a fragment extracted from reality, that poses a symbol of the world, the story widens into an allegorical, suspended in time and space parable – diagnosis of a disease that humanity suffers from. This disease is analgesia and people who suffer from it are dehumanised, degenerated creatures, slowly becoming beasts. Humanity consumed with a blindness epidemic gets a chance. Paradoxically this chance is the blindness – the last hope for the opening of human minds and hearts and return, by Freud, from the world of instincts and nature to the world of culture and its humanistic values.

Blindness opened 2008 at the Cannes International Film Festival. It is a film version of the same title novel by Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago. His works are foremost allegoric parables in which he includes his deep anxieties about the modern world and modern people. Similar concerns Meirelles articulates in his films. It is not surprising then how persistently he tried to screen the novel of one of the greatest contemporary visionaries. Is the vision dreary? Well, perhaps it’s a chance we will see daylight faster.

Chosen filmography

2008 Blindness
2005 The Constant Gardener
2002 Cidade de Deus
2001 Domesticas
2000 Palace II
1998 Menino Maluquinho 2: A Aventura

Chosen Awards

2000 Honorable Mention of the Children’s Cinema Competition Jury at 2000 Cartagena Film Festival for Menino Maluquinho 2: A Aventura
2001  Jury Award at Ajijic International Film Festival for Domesticas
2002  Visions Award – Special Citation at Toronto International Film Festival for Cidade de Deus
2004  Nominee for Best Director at Academy Awards for Cidade de Deus
2006  Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Film for The Constant Gardener
2008  Audience Award at Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival for Blindness

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Filed under: film history, filmmakers

About the Author

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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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