Hollywood looks south for new cinematic visions
RIO DE JANEIRO — Director Fernando Meirelles thumps the pile of scripts stacked on top of his filing cabinet. He picks them up and reels off a list of offers. There is a script from Dreamworks, another from Universal, proposals to make movies about the Middle Ages, World War II, and contemporary New York.
Mr. Meirelles is receiving the big-money offers thanks to the huge success of his latest film, "Cidade de Deus" ("City of God") which opens in the US and Europe next month. The enlightening and often violent film about the rise of drug trafficking in a Rio slum of the same name has piqued the interest of Hollywood executives, as well as of Brazilians, who have turned out in unprecedented numbers.
It also confirms a boom in Latin American filmmaking. In addition to Brazil's "City of God," industry experts say a new generation of Argentine filmmakers are coming of age. In Mexico, the impact of such recent releases as "Amores Perros" in 2000 and this year's "The Crime of Father Amaro" - the biggest-grossing Mexican film of all time - have many believing in a new golden age of Mexican cinema.
"Something is definitely going on," says Diana Sanchez, the Latin American program director for the Toronto film festival. "There is definitely a surge."
"City of God" traces the history of life and crime in a Rio favela, or housing project. Built as a model complex in the 1960s, it was, like much of Brazil's low-cost housing, ignored by authorities. Soon, it fell into the hands of the drug traffickers who were beginning to establish footholds in Brazil.
The film follows the development of organized crime in the community, from the relatively innocent gangsters of the 60s; through the 1970s, when drugs became more readily available and crime became more violent; and into the increasingly desperate cocaine-laced 1980s. Narrated by a local boy who uses his passion for photography to avoid getting caught up in the gang warfare, the film has broken box-office records since its release on Aug. 30, topping 3 million ticket sales.
More important, says Meirelles, it has helped Brazil's large middle class, most of whom have never set foot in a favela, get a new perspective on a universe that is still seen as ugly and sinister, even by people who live just yards away from it.
"I tried to show that universe to people like me who didn't know about it," Meirelles explains. "I saw that there is a war going on in Brazil and ... I thought, 'This is serious, how could we not know about this?' "
Within seconds of entering the City of God for the first time, Meirelles was threatened by a youth wielding a big silver pistol. Meirelles and the crew were forced to coordinate their movements with the drug lord who controlled the favela. Meirelles said the drug lord, who spoke to associates from his cell in Rio's maximum security jail on a smuggled mobile phone, read the film's script and gave them the go-ahead to shoot under the condition that they make the movie as realistic as possible and not copy Hollywood.
That "un-American" style of film, with no heroes, no central character, and no clear beginning, middle, and end, is one of the trademarks of the new wave of Latin American films - and one of the things that makes it so attractive to Hollywood, Meirelles adds.
"It seems that big American studios are interested in different visions," he says as he pores over scripts in his Sao Paulo office. "They called on a Chinese guy [Ang Lee] to do 'The Hulk,' a Mexican [Alfonso Cuarón] is doing [the next] Harry Potter, and I am receiving a lot of scripts from big studios. I always say, 'Why are you calling a Brazilian guy from the Third World who barely speaks English to do this?,' and they all say, 'We are looking for a different vision because we can't stand our vision anymore.' "
Latin America is in a position to provide different visions for a combination of reasons, Meirelles and other experts say. The three countries with the longest film histories - Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico - have all undergone profound crises or political changes over the past few years, providing filmmakers with a wealth of material.
In Argentina, graduates of a new film school are beginning to put out a variety of new movies. In Mexico, directors who had hits in the US have returned home and invested in local talent, often with one of the numerous new coproduction companies making films with the US, Canada, and Spain.
In Brazil, filmmakers are starting to benefit from two laws passed in the 1990s that encourage companies to invest in cinema by giving them tax breaks and other incentives. This year, Brazil will produce 30 to 35 films, almost twice as many as two years ago, says Paulo Sérgio Almeida, editor of Brazilian film magazine, Filme B.
The renaissance even has film experts hoping judges will select a Latin American offering as Best Foreign Film for only the second time in the academy's history - "The Official History" from Argentina won in 1985 - when they pick the Oscar winner at March's Academy Awards.
In addition to "City of God," the Argentine film "Kamchatka" and Mexico's "The Crime of Father Amaro," are considered favorites to make the final five this spring.
"It's getting more and more possible," says Ms. Sanchez. "There are really strong Latin American contenders."