Paulo Morelli Visits City of Men


Roughly five years ago, American moviegoers became more familiar with the violent life of the “favelas,” the hillside slum communities of Rio de Janiero, Brazil via Fernando Meirelles’ Oscar-nominated City of God, a film which stayed in one New York theater for over a year finding a large cult fanbase here in the States.

Now, Meirelles is concluding that chapter of his look at favela life with City of Men, directed by his long-time friend and collaborator Paulo Morelli, who has worked with Meirelles for over 26 years, having met him in film school back in the ’70s. Morelli joined the project with the second year of the television series, which ran for four seasons in Brazil with an edited version shown on the Sundance Channel here.

If you’re familiar with the show, then you’ll already know Ace and Wallace, the two childhood friends from Dead End Hill played by Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha, who have quite literally grown up on camera after appearing in City of God. For those unfamiliar with the show, the film works surprisingly well as a stand-alone story filling those people in with all the important details from the duo’s past. In the film, the two friends are both about to turn 18, making them realize they have to grow up and take responsibility, Ace for his young son, and Wallace, by trying to find the father he never knew, just as their favela is hit by a violent battle between two rival gangs.

Even though it takes place in a similar environment as City of God, there are no direct connections, instead focusing on the characters that were created for the television series. “The main ideas was to make a different film, not a sequel, so I was looking for what could be the roots of these differences,” Morelli told during a stop in New York. “My film is not about violence, not about drug dealers, it’s about the people who live in the favela and the relationship of these broken families and the friendship between these two guys, so I believed I could make a different film and not a sequel.”

For many, the first question that arises is why do another feature film to conclude the stories of characters introduced on a television with which most non-Brazilians won’t be familiar. “We realized two major things,” Morelli deliberated. “Doing a feature film, we could present the story abroad and not only in the Brazilian market, and we realized only with a feature film, we could go further with the themes we like to depict. During the TV series, we never could change the characters. They are always the same, but in the feature film, we can make an arc for them and they can change at the end of the story. We can go deep in our main theme, which is the lack of fatherhood. The main theme was planted as a seed into the series to be used in the feature film. It was part of the project, not from the beginning because we decided to make a feature film at the end of the second season. At this moment, we decided, ‘Okay, let’s make two more seasons and then a feature film to conclude the whole process.’ In the third year, I was the general supervisory director of the five episodes with other directors and writers, just planting the seeds of the main theme of fatherhood. The film screenplay was developed two years later.”

Even though City of Men is a gorgeous film with lots of impressive tracking shots of Rio, Morelli confessed to us that it didn’t cost that much more than City of God, because they were able to make it in the real favelas of Rio. “We didn’t build anything. We went there and shot,” he told us. “I’ve been to these favelas so many times that I know exactly the best place to shoot. It was not easy because these beautiful favelas, at that time two years ago, was in the middle of a war, exactly like in the film. We shot most of the film in a very calm favela called Chapel Mangueira, it’s just behind Copacabana. At the moment, this favela was peaceful and we built a base there, and we shot everything there. I shot in six different favelas to compose the Dead End Hill, because I wanted the landscape of them but also this big quarry, which was at a different place. Two gangs were fighting for this favela, so it was not easy to shoot there, but nothing was built. ”

One might consider it a dichotomy to call Rio’s slums “beautiful” but having worked in them extensively for the past few years, Morelli disagrees. “It is the most beautiful place in Rio.”

The characters may be different than those seen in City of God, but many of the actors are the same, having developed their characters from four years on the television show. Morelli told us how this unique cast was first discovered. “Most of the actors came from a group called ‘Nós do Morro,’ which can be translated as ‘We from the Hill’ and it’s a school of actors, but it’s inside the favela. For ‘City of God,’ Fernando was connected with ‘Nós do Morro’ but he started first six months, a very intense process of selecting and training actors, connected to the group, but it was separate, specifically for ‘City of God’ and doing that, he formed a new generation of actors. We transferred these actors to the series and now to the feature film.”

“We rehearsed for two months, and that was a very intense rehearsal process, because it was not just to rehearse the scene, it was about creating the scenes,” he continued. “Of course, I had a screenplay, very well defined and I knew what I wanted with each one of the scenes, but I invited them to feel free to improvise. I never gave them the screenplays; I told them the scenes, and said, ‘Okay, that’s what the scene is about, let’s rehearse and improvise’ and the lines appeared by the actors. That’s how we could extract their slang and the way they speak.”

“They are such great actors, and they have a great career in front of them,” Morelli added about the cast who were unknowns when they were first discovered nearly eight years ago. “They’re making other feature films and soap operas, but it’s very good for them, an option for their lives to be actors. I’m planning to invite some actors to my next film. They’re so creative.”

Before concluding, we asked Morelli how the film industry has been faring in Brazil, considering how few of the films made there ever show up in the United States. “It’s a very good moment in Brazilian cinema, since the Audio-Visual Law, a new generation appeared, and now we’re making fifty to seventy films per year. Most of them are bad films. It’s common everywhere, but some of them are very good, and a new generation of good directors are growing up. Our company is now producing a lot of movies. We have a very good deal with Focus, and we are shooting, not now, but in one month, our first film from this deal, and the second film in the second semester, and we are planning to make a lot of films with this partnership.”

In the meantime, Morelli’s apparently been working on seven screenplays since completing City of Men, so things have been very busy for the filmmaker as he takes meetings to figure out which one he’ll be able to direct next, but he’s also been reading some screenplays from abroad, seeing that as a viable option if he can find a good story.

City of Men opens in select cities on Friday, February 29.