City of God (2002, U.S. release 2003) - a film that blew everyone away

Fernando Meirelles

  • Born: 1955
  • Rank:  #93
  • Score:  513.75
  • Nominations:  Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe
  • Feature Films:  4
  • Best:  City of God
  • Worst:  Blindness

Feature Films (ranked):

  1. City of God  –  2002
  2. The Constant Gardener  –  2005
  3. Domestícas  –  2001
  4. Blindness  –  2008

Top 10 Best Director finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 2003  –  4th  –  City of God
  • 2005  –  8th  –  The Constant Gardener

When I made the first list, Meirelles had a score of 580.  But, as I said at the time, I had not seen Blindness or Domestícas and I speculated that they could knock him off the list.  Well, they did knock him down nearly 70 points, but that wasn’t enough to keep him off the new version of the list.  And what will come with 360?  It could be more of the greatness of City of God and The Constant Gardener or more of the disappointment of Blindness.  But even in a misfire like Blindness you can see that Meirelles has a considerable amount of talent.  If it continues to stay focused we could have a number of great films to come.

City of God  –  #5 film of 2003

How do you think this project was pitched?  “Um, well, it’s like you took the kind of life you saw in Kids, and then you add the kind of violence that you saw in The Wild Bunch.  With maybe a little of those old films about a crusading journalist.  And, oh, it has football.  No, not that.  You know, soccer.”

Going into the Academy Award nominations in early 2004, four directors pretty much knew they were going to be getting noms.  Peter Jackson had Return of the King, Clint Eastwood had Mystic River and Sofia Coppola had Lost in Translation, all of which had won Best Director awards from critics and they all had DGA, Globe and Broadcast Film Critics nominations.  Peter Weir didn’t have any wins yet, but had the same nominations and all of them had BAFTA nominations except for Eastwood.  But the fifth spot looked pretty open.  Gary Ross was in good position with Seabiscuit as he had the fifth DGA slot and the film was likely to grab the fifth Best Picture slot.  Cold Mountain had stumbled in the Oscar race, but director Anthony Minghella already had an Oscar and had Globe and BAFTA nominations.  Tim Burton even had a chance for Big Fish and had BAFTA and BFCA noms.  Finally, In America was gaining traction and director Jim Sheridan had done well with the smaller groups – a BFCA nom, an Indie Spirit nom and winning the Satellite award.  So imagine the surprise across the board when the final director was Fernando Meirelles for City of God.  True, it had won several Foreign Film awards, but the year before it hadn’t even managed to get nominated by the Academy when submitted by Brazil.  Yet, here it was with four Oscar nominations, including Director and Adapted Screenplay.

And then people started to actually go see the film and were astounded to discover that it definitely belonged in the race.  While Mystic River had explored what could happen when infected with horror and violence at a young age, City of God was a look at what happens when that horror and violence never go away, when they become an intimate part of your daily life.  It is a reminder that cities take their poor and push them to the side, or even to the center and isolate them from the rest of their society.  These really are the same kind of kids as in Larry Clark’s film (right down to the idea that they were untrained actors who were cast for their amateur status making it all seem much more like a documentary than a feature film), except their poverty is much more extreme and they are able to get hold of two things that changes the very nature of their lives – drugs and guns.

There is one of them who is able to get hold of something more.  I could go metaphorical and claim that he gets hold of hope and uses it to propel himself forward.  But the reality is that he gets hold of a camera and suddenly the very images of his life become the front page images of the newspaper, something he thinks will lead to a quick death, but instead leads to young gang members (there really are no old gang members in the City of God – no one lives that long in this kind of life) who desperately want to see themselves paraded across the front of the news.  So he finds his ticket out and we find our angle in.  We follow the story, starting with a gang war against the police that quickly morphs, in one absolutely incredible screenshot (this shot alone is probably what earned the film its very well-earned Oscar nominations for Editing and Cinematography) from a teen in the midst of violence to a kid in the midst of a different kind of violence – poor boys playing with the only soccer ball available.

City of God is not for the light of heart.  And don’t delude yourself into believing that this is the result of a third-world country, like the kind of despair you see in the gutters of Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire.  First of all, Brazil is not a third-world country.  Second of all, the Rio of Meirelles is not so different from the New York of Scorsese or the Portland of Van Sant.  But it is the remarkable breakthrough of a phenomenal director and the kind of film you should see, even if you don’t want to.