A little-seen but potent ode to '80s Brazilian gangstas emerges from the slums of Rio with four Oscar nods

By Jeff Jensen
February 06, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Fernando Meirelles is just as baffled as anyone about his Oscar nomination for Best Director — plus the three other surprise nods (adapted screenplay, editing, cinematography) bestowed upon his film City of God. But it’s not because he’s an otherwise unknown Brazilian commercial director whose ultraviolent, hyperkinetic, mostly improvised Portuguese-language opus about slum kids living and dying in Rio went largely unseen by American audiences. See, Meirelles thought his shot at Oscar glory would happen last year. City of God was Brazil’s 2002 submission for Best Foreign Language Film, but failed to get a nomination. ”The jury who vote for foreign films, they’re older,” explains Meirelles, 48. ”Older people, they don’t like so much this film.” The director doesn’t begrudge Oscar too much: ”My mother didn’t like the film,” he laughs. ”Of course, she was proud of her son and all, but first time she saw it, she said, ‘Ehhh. Too violent.’ She’s 68.”

Meirelles turned his attention to another movie. As Oscar tub-thumping began last fall, he was either in Brazil or in England, prepping his English-language debut, The Constant Gardener, an adaptation of the John le Carre novel starring Ralph Fiennes. But in the U.S., Miramax kept City of God — which was still eligible in categories other than foreign-language film — on life support long after its Jan. 17, 2003, release. ”We made a conscious decision to keep this movie in theaters for 54 weeks,” says Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein, who rereleased City of God three times based in part on word-of-mouth in Hollywood. Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, and Quentin Tarantino, he says, all told him: ”I love this movie.”

One last bit of Oscar intrigue hangs over City of God. Though nominated as sole director, Meirelles collaborated with documentary filmmaker Katia Lund, who is credited on the movie as codirector. Meirelles unabashedly praises Lund’s ”important” contributions but adds that her role was limited to working with the cast of amateur actors. Asked why Lund wasn’t nominated, Weinstein says, ”That’s a good question. Fernando and Katia have to determine that amongst themselves. We’ll certainly go to the Academy and ask them to make a ruling.”

For Meirelles, the ruling will be irrelevant, because he’s convinced he won’t win the damn thing anyway. ”I really think Peter Jackson will win. He deserves to,” he says. ”But you bet I’ll be there!”

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