Sunday, September 21, 2008
Brazilian director, Fernando Meirelles has been sharpening his skills for quite some time now, literally. His 2003 international debut, CIDADE DE DEUS (CITY OF GOD) opens with quiet titles against a black backdrop and is suddenly interrupted by quick, bright inserts of a blade being sharpened. In the context of the film, the knife is to be used by a bunch of street punks to kill a chicken. As far as we’re concerned though, that knife is being sharpened to rip us apart because that is exactly what happens when you watch Meirelles work his magic on screen. The chicken, seemingly aware of her fate, escapes to see another day but escape is not so easy for those of us at home. Once Meirelles has you, there is no escape.
CITY OF GOD made people around the world stand up and take notice of this 53-year-old director. It was a stylistic revelation, both gritty and smooth. The blaring sunshine glistening against the soft Brazilian skin tones and bare sandy beaches is mesmerizing while watching street kids make all the wrong choices as though they had no others to make is nauseatingly disturbing. His ability to create a space that was both exquisite and exhilarating while still sparse and hollowing earned him international acclaim but it was his seamless blending of story and reality that earned him an unexpected but well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Director (and a Mouton d'Or in the same category). The story itself exposes the slum known as the City of God and the difficult struggle against a destiny of drugs and crime for every child that comes from there. Kids acting like gangsters is hard enough to deal with but even harder when some are not even acting. Meirelles cast actual street kids in some of the roles and found a way to use the experiences they survived to infuse performances from inexperienced players. The result is so real at times that you forget you’re watching a narrative film.
CITY OF GOD earned a total of four Academy Award nominations and once that had happened, Meirelles could choose any project he wanted. He chose the John Le Carre adaptation, THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Going from the slums of Brazil to A.I.D.S.-stricken villages in Africa seemed risky but promising. It was not so much Meirelles’ opportunity to solidify his position as a potential master director but rather a necessity that everyone wanted to see successfully met. Within moments, any doubt that he would be able to meet the challenge is washed away. THE CONSTANT GARDENER confirmed Meirelles’ uncanny ability to tell a story in a harsh environment while making it seem as though the action itself was unraveling amidst that environment, even with the inclusion of Hollywood actors like Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (who went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). It is also a brave account of government involvement in drug testing on what they consider to be the disposable population of Africa. As bleak as it sounds though, Meirelles weaves multiple levels of love and humanity into this complicated conspiracy thriller and gives value to lives that have been devalued and ignored for far too long.
His third project, BLINDNESS, seems like a natural enough progression. It is yet another critique on how horribly human beings can disregard the value of another person. The major difference is that Meirelles leaves his signature ability to recreate reality to tell a story that is entirely unreal. Based on Jose Saramago’s Portuguese novel, BLINDNESS imagines what the world would be like if humanity suddenly lost the ability to see. It is unexplained, incurable and downright unnerving. It is also unfortunately lacking compared to his previous efforts. Obvious plot holes lead to gaping questions that never go answered and for the first time, it feels as though Meirelles is making concessions instead of making a masterpiece. BLINDNESS stars Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal and follows them as they are all quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. What happens in the quarantine is ugly and dirty and sadly not so far fetched. The style is still tops and the performances are unfaltering but it’s the loose ends that become BLINDNESS’s ultimate undoing. What is going on outside of the quarantine? Has blindness only affected this particular American city or is this a world wide epidemic? Why is it that if Moore’s character is unaffected that scientists are not studying her? While BLINDNESS is still well worth seeing, its lack of cohesive emotional impact makes you wish Meirelles had stayed with what he knows, how to be real and harsh while still staying true to hope. Instead, he turns a blind eye to what he knows isn’t working and we see right through it.
Despite a minor slip, there is no denying Meirelles’s calculated talent, unique vision and passion for humanity. Given his proximity to genius, if I were that chicken, I would have let him cut me up. No doubt I would have ended up as something infinitely more meaningful and served amidst chaos with the intent of bringing balance and peace to the table.