‘City of God’ finally has its say - spectacular opening ceremony sends message of hope to the world

Stirring Maracana show depicts Rio the way Brazilians see it - a city with a beautiful soul that is trying hard to overcome its flaws

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 7:19am

Finally, Rio was able to tell its side of the story. A story entrusted, ironically, to someone famous for painting a desperate and harrowing picture of the city in which death and drugs intertwine and life has little value.

Asking such a man to revive Rio’s spirits is like asking Metallica to play the background music for Swan Lake. But if Fernando Meirelles’ gripping and frightening 2002 classic film City Of God depicted Rio as it was and, with certainty, as it still is, then perhaps the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games at the fabled Maracana Stadium was his vision for what Rio would eventually be.

As it happened: Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony from the Maracana

The stinging attacks on Rio leading up to the Games were favela-esque. The world’s media pounced on every shooting, mugging and security issue, at times justifiably so because the concerns are real and a number of athletes, journalists and tourists have fallen victim to the city’s notorious criminals.

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The Brazilian government released US$24 million in order to bring in 100,000 military personnel to beef up security yet the incidents continue to mount.

Then there are the facilities. Delegations complained of leaking ceilings, blocked toilets and exposed wiring at the Olympic Village. It was a race against time to complete venues and health issues such as the Zika virus caused panic among many athletes, with high-profile golfers such as Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, among others, deciding it was not worth the risk and pulled out of the Games.

So it was against such a dismal scenario that Rio sat in the dock on Friday, not so much to explain and defend itself for its inadequacies but to prove to the world that it wasn’t the soulless cesspit of debauchery portrayed by the media and that it possessed the spirit, culture, history and the resources to overwhelm the evil within and clear a path for good to triumph. Meirelles and fellow creative directors Daniela Thomas and Andrucha Waddington accepted the challenge of making a compelling case for Rio’s right for respect.

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Indeed, Meirelles and his collaborators reached into the depths of the city’s inner streets and favelas – the purported purveyors of Rio scum – rummaged around, pulled out its struggles and hopes and cast them on to the Maracana floor, which was turned into a giant screen on which they projected all aspects of Brazilian life, heritage and dreams.

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Thanks to remarkable digital projection technology, the Maracana took its audience across Brazil, summoned the sea, recalled its history and foresaw urban renewal.

For visitors to Rio, it was jaw-dropping. For Rio natives, it was heart-wrenching and exhilarating. Before them were the hopes and dreams they all harbour for a prosperous Brazil, as if they themselves needed convincing that the outsiders were wrong. We are not a city in decay. We are ones who bear Rio’s soul, not them, and only we can purify it.

Eduardo Zobaran, a journalist with the influential O Globo newspaper and who is from Rio, said Meirelles and his team captured the city’s story perfectly at the opening ceremony.

“I thought it was beautiful,” said Zobaran. “We are used to big ceremonies like this, especially during carnival times. Because it’s always about having a story to tell.

“But this is different because this is our story and this is the first time it was told to the world. It was very beautiful and, for myself, it was emotional and maybe it was emotional for most of us.”

A big fan of the movie, Zobaran pointed to the very favela on which City Of God revolved around and how the area itself can be a source of inspiration.

“The ‘City of God’ is close to here [Maracana], about 15 minutes,” he said. “We can see how the place developed to become what it is and now it is a big favela. People would say that is the worst part of Rio. I think it is part of Rio. It’s not only about what Brazil wants to be, it is what Brazil is.”

The Olympic Games is under way in a South American country for the first time and, after the first day, it was clear that Brazilians are rallying around Rio. They scoffed at the scepticism on whether or not people will attend the events and turned up in their thousands.

They packed the stands and turned even mundane sporting moments into entertainment. If what’s happening on the pitch, piste or podium is putting you to sleep, just turn your gaze to the stands and you will wonder if you’re all watching the same thing.

Rio will party over the next two weeks, and it appears that the concept of “it will be alright on the night” is more than adequately covered by their determination to ensure a successful Games.

Once the party ends, though, and the world trickles out of the city, no longer kicking up a fuss nor caring about mosquitoes, crime and inefficiency, nothing much would have changed in Rio.

The worst favelas will continue to fester, muggings on Copacabana Beach will continue, and the Brazilian version of Black Lives Matter will still be ignored by the world’s media even though more young blacks are killed in this country than in America.

But if the opening ceremony did anything, it was to show outsiders that Rio’s soul is not theirs to judge. It certainly has their respect.