Brazilian Author Recalls the Pain of Writing City of God

Brazilian author Paulo Lins Fernando Meirelles' Oscar-nominated City of God was one of the most controversial Brazilian movies of recent years. The film showed a side of Brazil that usually is a far cry from the picture-perfect image that most Americans (and Europeans) have gotten used to over the years.

You get a glimpse of the beach a couple of times, but Ipanema and Copacabana are nowhere to be seen in here. Instead, what you see is a raw view of the real-life area of Rio that gave Paulo Lins' novel its name.
 
It was during an overcast Sunday afternoon that Paulo Lins (aided by an interpreter) sat down at the New York's Two Boots Pioneer Theater,  during the PEN World Voices,  with Antonio Skármeta (the author of Ardiente Paciencia/Burning Patience, which was adapted to the screen as Il Postino a few years ago) to talk about how the written word is transposed to a screenplay.
 
The conversation began with the genesis of the novel. Paulo Lins explained that he set out to write a nonfiction novel with a "focus on gang violence" that he grew up around.

"The fact is", he explained, "that the great majority of those living in Cidade de Deus today are not involved in crime – there are about 200,000 residents there today, but only about 500 – who are heavily armed – are criminals."
 
He also stated that once youngsters are involved in this life, rehabilitation is more often not an option. "There are networks in that world," he explained, "and once you are arrested, you have a record that brands you for life – no one will give you a job if you've been in jail."
 
When asked about writing the novel, he said that the task was more difficult than he thought it would be.
 
"I thought it would be easy, as I knew all the characters, and had lived through most of it, but as I began writing, I realized that to live it was easier than to write about it."
 
"There was a moment in which a child gets killed that I just couldn't face", he said, "so I just skipped ahead and went back to it much later."
 
"Writing Cidade de Deus took a lot from me – I lost my hair, and aged a lot while working on the novel – I was a much more handsome man before I began working on it".
 
He also talked about how the book made its way to the screen – the script took five years to be made, because it was difficult to transpose the language of Rio's shantytowns to the adaptation. He explained that the final result was a compromise, and that today he sees the film as a "distant cousin" of his original work.
 
When discussing the making of the film, he said that because they chose to use mostly unprofessional actors to play most of the parts, much of the dialogue was unscripted.
 
"The director would tell them that they would rob a bank, and then he would roll the cameras while everyone improvised. There were no rehearsals, and many of the scenes were done in a single take."
 
The discussion was followed by a screening of City of God. Most of those present had already seen the film a number of times (myself included), and it was interesting to see it again after hearing the point of view of the novel's author, who jokingly expressed, at the end of the conversation, that the film was not "violent enough."
 
"The novel is a political statement, a denunciation of a reality that most don't want to address", he explained.
 
He also added that although there is a lot of violence in the slums due to drug trafficking, Brazil is pretty safe for tourists. "There aren't so many muggings or petty crimes around. You can come visit us and feel reasonably safe."

Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com.

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