Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles film still

The chipper and charming Brazilian director of City of God defends his new film, 360, against a rash of scathing reviews.

Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles achieved critical and commercial success with his debut City of God, and went to Hollywood to make the equally well-received The Constant Gardener. In 2008, he opened Cannes with Blindness, a contagion-themed ensemble piece that took a beating from the critics. In 2011, it was another festival, the LFF, and another ensemble-led movie about interconnectivity, 360; if anything, the reviews were even worse.

LWLies met Meirelles recently to discuss the film's roots and the critical response, and found an engaging, determined filmmaker in a philosophical mood.

LWLies: Basing a screenplay on Arthus Schniitzler's play 'La Ronde' was an idea of screenwriter Peter Morgan's. How did you come to be involved?

Meirelles: Peter developed the film by himself. He wanted to write a very personal story about his own life; he lives in Vienna, he works in London, he works in the US – he was in Phoenix for a while. So he was always travelling, in airplanes, in airports and hotels. He told us he was thinking about writing something about that, about how things are connected, and then came this friend of his from Vienna asking him if he could write something on Schnitzler for the author's 150th anniversary. So he read 'La Ronde' and decided to combine both ideas. But 360's not really an adaptation of 'La Ronde', it's just using the same idea of one character taking you to another. Both stories start in Vienna with a prostitute, so they also coincide there. And both are about sex, or desires. But they share no more than that.

There's a sense in 'La Ronde' that we're very much talking about class, whereas most of the characters in 360 are of a piece in terms of social status.

Yeah, class is not such an issue. 'La Ronde' was this thing about class, but also about sex, of course. And when it was written, it was also about a disease; syphilis was a very big issue, so in some ways it was telling how the virus was spread.

Of course, Blindness was another ensemble piece about contagion that opened a festival ...

And another moment where I've been slammed!

The reviews for 360, including our own, haven't been too favourable either.

I don't read reviews, it takes away your energy. There are some reviews that are not really about the film, that are ... brutal, you know? There was a review from the Guardian, it was written by a woman, I don't know her name. I haven't read it, but I was in Toronto with Peter [Morgan] and he was devastated for almost a month – he said, 'I'm not going to write anymore'. If she knew what she had done to him … she took all the energy from him, really drew all the life. I've just met him in Munich and he's better, but she really destroyed the film. It's really... it's mean, you know? It's not about, 'this is my job,' – no it's not. You can take issue with the work, or this or that problem, but it seems the way she wrote was quite perverse.

I don't know if she's aware of how destructive and mean she can be. And the bad thing is that her review – which, thank goodness, I never read – because it was from the Guardian, when you Google 360 the first thing you get is bam! the Guardian: 'Oh, this was a flop, wasn't it?' It's very irresponsible, I think.

Let's look at the positives in 360: there's location work that avoids cliché and travelogue; Ben Foster lifts the film whenever he's on screen; Anthony Hopkins turns in a great monologue. And yet the response has varied from ripping the film to pieces to, at best, a sense that the whole thing doesn't hang together. Is it a problem with audience expectation, or with the film itself?

But you know what? I've been travelling this week, I've been in Paris and Berlin, in Munich, in Vienna and came here – and we're starting press in Brazil – and the film's getting good reviews. You know when I decided not to read reviews anymore? It was when I released City of God in Brazil. If you look at the first reaction to the film in Brazil, it was terrible! 'This is a stupid film, that will be forgotten in three months – a film that is pure publicity'. 'The guy comes from commercials', 'It's imitating America,' 'It's going to be forgotten, it's about nothing'. And it was slammed. There was a critic who invented an expression: 'cosmetic'. So even today, if I'm interviewed in Brazil, the interviewer will say, '... and do you think that your film is cosmetic?'

The film survived those three month, but this was the first time that I was doing something public, under my name; something I was doing because I really loved the story and I believed in it. And I was like Peter was in Toronto. So I decided I wasn't going to read reviews, because I want to make more films – I would have offers, there would be some people who like them, so why would I [read reviews]? But since then, every film I make, the first reaction is bam!

There was an interesting thing about Blindness. The biggest film critic in Brazil watched it in Cannes, and he didn't like it, and he wrote a little piece. And then I met him two years ago, and he watched it again and he said, 'Fernando, it's amazing, it's a different film.' He wrote a big review on the film, almost saying, 'I'm sorry, I hadn't seen the film.' I didn't read the first one, I didn't read the second one: but he told me, 'I wrote a very long piece on the film because I watched it again and it's a different film'.

So what had changed?

He watched it for a second time, he felt that he hadn't [truly] seen it before. This can happen. And for me, with 360, what struck me and what I like – and what is very different and very risky – is that the film has no antagonists. The antagonist is inside each character, that's what I loved about the story. All the characters are just normal people, like myself, all of them want to be good fathers, good wives, good citizens, whatever. But they're fighting with their impulses and desires.

I remember that I was very impressed when I read 'Civilization and Its Discontents' and, of course, when Freud wrote that the world was much more repressive, so one had to repress one's own desires in order to build civilisation. Eighty years later, we're much more tolerant, we accept that people go for their desires. But our primitive side is still fighting with our rational side, and we still kill our instincts in order to build civilisation. In the film, the dentist can't go for his love because he needs to keep his religion, or Jude Law needs to keep his family – they are illustrations of this text that impressed me so much; all these people are fighting with themselves.

There's a moment when they have to choose. Some of them – like the dentist – say, 'No, I want civilisation' and some of them, and its something I like about the story of the Brazilian girl, say, 'Ah, today I'll let go'. So at the moment when Ben Foster is trying really hard to stick to 'I want to be a citizen, I want to have a job,' he meets this girl who is coming from the opposite direction, who's never done this, but just today... It's a very subtle thing, but I love it. Some people just watch and all they see is a story about a dentist. But to me it's meaningful. Some people get it, and some people couldn't care.

Is it just that people don't get it? Or is it that the film you intended to make is different from the film they've seen?

No, the interesting thing about this film as well is that I was intrigued when I read it because I had done stupid things in my life that I had regretted, and I thought, 'Why do we do these things?' I've felt this conflict that I was talking about. I called Peter and I told him I liked the story, I understand the characters, but I asked, 'What is the film about?' and I liked his answer. He said, 'Fernando, I usually know what I'm writing about, but here I have no idea. But come, let's write it and let's find out – we might not find out, but let's allow ourselves to try.' This is a brave man. He's not going for the box-office. This [we thought] is a complicated structure, we might break our faces but let's try and at the end we might know what we're talking about. Or maybe we won't.' Maybe we didn't reach that point for most people, but I'm glad that for some people we did.

Looking ahead, your proposed Janis Joplin project is now off, but your Ari Onassis film is going into production soon?

Yes, it's called Nemesis, from a British biography. I'm very enthusiastic about it, because after 10 years I'm working again with Bráulio Mantovarni. Of course it comes from the book, but we developed the script from scratch. Really, I'm not that interested in Onassis – of course he is the lead, but the film is really about hatred, about how Bobby Kennedy, one of the most powerful men of his time, and Onassis, the richest man of his time, they hated one another and fought until both of them died in the end. It's more than simply a film about Onassis; it's a film about hate.

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