- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

The first questioner who stood up following a recent screening in the District of Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener” didn’t really have a question. He had comments. He was angry.

“I was scared,” recalls Mr. Meirelles, the Brazilian director of 2002’s surprise international hit “City of God.”

“He almost called me a communist,” the director continues in sturdy, if imperfect, English. “He said, ‘You’re against capitalism. You’re against the West. You’re against the corporate world and the drugs that save your life. What kind of guy are you? Are you pro-Muslim — the guys trying to explode us?”

“The Constant Gardener,” which opens in area theaters Wednesday, is an adaptation of John le Carre’s 2000 novel of the same name. It’s set in Nairobi, Kenya, amid much human suffering and hopscotches to and from London, the locus of a nefarious pharmaceutical giant.

Conservatives familiar with the book, as well as the spy novelist’s other recent works, including 2003’s “Absolute Friends,” an indictment of the war in Iraq, might forgive the questioner his ire, if not his style.

Indeed, Mr. Meirelles seems to have imbibed fully Mr. le Carre’s anti-drug-company rhetoric disguised as fiction. Drug companies are more interested in refining and perfecting Viagra and developing miracle diet pills than in helping the Third World, he charges. For a fraction of the money they spend on marketing designer drugs to the West, he adds, they could be curing (the already curable) malaria.

Not that he’s anti-drug-company, he insists. “They do a great job,” Mr. Meirelles says. “I use their drugs. Our lives are better today than it was for our parents. And our children will live longer than us. The film’s not against pharmaceutical companies, just against methods.”

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For the Brazilian director, who turns 50 this fall, drug-company conduct is just one aspect of a broader concern, globalization. His interest in the subject explains why he ended up working on a British production set in Africa and adapted from a novelist whose fixation on spies and Cold War intrigue “seemed distant from me. I had never read anything from le Carre before.”

“Gardener” was shot in Kenya, where the director went hog-wild with visions of vibrant tropical colors and aerial footage of the African continent, counterbalanced by black, gray and green London. He hired filmmaker Brian Woods to concoct a nine-minute documentary within “Gardener” slamming the pharmaceutical industry. Viewers would see it through a computer screen. The film’s original three-hour cut also included 12 minutes of a stage play. “It was beautiful,” he says — but too long.

“We watched, and it didn’t work,” he says.

So “Gardener” became a love story as much as an international thriller. With input from Mr. le Carre — who had, but never exercised, the right to final approval over script changes — Mr. Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine (“GoldenEye”) amped up the interplay between a married couple caught in a web of deadly deception. They are British diplomat Justin Quayle (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his young, sizzlingly idealistic wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who are stationed in Nairobi.

On this film, Mr. Meirelles worked with a handful of name actors rather than the massive cross-generational cast of unknowns he used in “City of God,”

“It’s like a precision machine. Whatever you ask them, they will do it,” Mr. Meirelles says, less in satisfaction than in amazement.

Such are the dividends that “City of God,” with its multiple Oscar nominations, has paid.

“Things really changed,” Mr. Meirelles recounts, after he first showed “City of God,” a wild and roiling chronicle of crime and violence in a Rio de Janeiro slum, at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. “There were a lot of people offering me hundreds of projects. There are all these people interested in financing whatever I come up with.”

Again, the tone is one of amazement. “I know this is temporary,” he reckons. “Probably, in five years, it won’t be like this.”

What to do with this newfound clout? How about transitioning into American popcorn movies, a la “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” director Ang Lee, who tried his hand at “Hulk” two years ago?

“I’m more keen to tell stories from Brazil’s viewpoint,” Mr. Meirelles says. “When I did ‘City of God,’ I never thought the film would be shown outside Brazil. I mean, every line is sent to Brazilian society.”

He adds: “Someday I’d like to do a big film, just for the pleasure of spending $80 million. But I think I would avoid telling a story about American culture. My feeling is that all the stories have been told already. Whatever you think, it’s already become a film already.”

In America, that is. Not in Brazil, whose blinkered cultural nationalism and TV-centric milieu Mr. Meirelles plans to play to great creative advantage.

His background is in directing TV, including commercials. He has spent the past few years overseeing the “God” offshoot TV series “City of Man,” a comedy about two boys living in a Rio shantytown. It boasts the same crew and cast as “God” and has been quite successful.

Brazil’s television industry dwarfs its movie business. “City of God,” with 3 million tickets sold, was a record-breaker there, whereas the audience for Brazilian TV numbers is in the hundreds of millions. “It’s incomparable,” Mr. Meirelles says. “It’s the thing that links the country. It’s all produced in Brazil. It’s in Portuguese. It’s about this country. Nobody reads in Brazil. Few people speak English.”

Unlike in, say, Kenya, American cultural totems have failed to penetrate Brazil. “They tried to sell all the sitcoms, [such as] ‘Friends,’ but it never worked,” he says. “It was a disaster.”

For his part, Mr. Meirelles is thankful for Brazil’s insularity. It fits nicely with his vision of being his country’s Pedro Almodovar.

“He’s doing Spanish films in Spain, but he’s an international director,” Mr. Meirelles says of Mr. Almodovar, the provocative auteur of movies such as “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her” and “Bad Education.” “That’s exactly what I’d like to do: Brazilian films, if possible in Portuguese, for an international audience.”

If our Q&A; combatant had just gotten to know Mr. Meirelles a little better, he would have noticed the hard-nosed business sense within this visionary director, who is still learning the ropes of the major studio game and international movie marketing.

“To produce a film that’s not in English, it has to cost a maximum of $6 [million] or $7 million,” Mr. Meirelles explains. “Every time I have an idea that costs more than that — like ‘Intolerance’ — at least part of it has to be in English.”

He almost sounds downright American in his can-do practicality.

“This is a limit, but I will deal with it.”

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