Fernando Meirelles is celebrated for directing intense, disturbing films: The Constant Gardener (2005), which focused on the unethical activities of pharmaceutical firms in Africa, and City of God (2002), a graphic depiction of violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. In person, however, he does not seem like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His friend and collaborator, the screenwriter Don McKellar, describes him as "almost jarringly easy-going". He is certainly remarkably laid back when I interrupt the end of his lunch at a private members' club in London. Sitting back in his chair, his legs loosely crossed, he exudes youthful energy. Only the laughter lines around his eyes give away his age of 53.
His relaxed demeanour could not be more of a contrast with the nature of the film we are here to talk about. Meirelles's latest venture is an adaptation of Blindness, a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago. It envisages the breakout of a mysterious epidemic which strikes sufferers blind. Those affected, including a doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his still-sighted wife (Julianne Moore), are put into quarantine.
The film follows the inmates journey from solidarity to social breakdown and utter brutality. In tone and content, Blindness has much in common with Children of Men, another apocalyptic thriller directed by a Latin American, the Mexican Alfonso Cuarón. Blindness is still more graphic: it includes two particularly harrowing scenes of gang rape.
For Fernando Meirelles, the film represents "the idea that we really don't truly know other people or even ourselves". He insists, however, that its portrait of humanity is not entirely bleak.
"By the end of the film we see that it is possible to change our perception and to see people in a different way. There are so many ways for us to open our eyes."
It is clear that this project - just as much as the more obviously Brazilian City of God - draws on his experience of growing up in a deeply divided society, which seems always to be teetering on the brink of violence and chaos. "Brazil is a problematic country, with much social division. We are used to living with quite traumatic situations all around us every day. I think that is reflected in my films, even if they are not set in Brazil. There are always characters who are dealing with forces that are much bigger than they are, and problems which they are incapable of solving."
Meirelles set about creating a convincing portrait of social breakdown by encouraging strong bonds between actors and crew. "He is one of those directors that succeeds by inspiring his co-workers to collaborate," says McKellar. All the actors, both leads and background, along with some of the crew, including Meirelles, went on day-long, or sometimes two-day, "blind camps", in which they were blindfolded and set tasks such as eating and walking around. The cast was kept together in the filthy dorm set, while cameras rolled unobtrusively - often actors weren't even told when they were running. According to McKellar: "It was prob ably the most comfortable and least hier archical set I've ever been on - this despite, or perhaps because of, the difficult material." For Meirelles, a director should not be an auteur but rather someone who simply "selects the best bits" of a group venture. "A film is a collaboration between very creative people. I'll tell them if I disagree with something," he says.
Meirelles was born into a comfortable middle-class family in São Paulo in 1955. He originally trained as an architect, but during his studies started making experimental short films and eventually abandoned his course to form an independent production company. He went on to work in television and advertising, and directed 180 episodes of a popular Brazilian children's series. In 1991, he set up the O2 Filmes production company (now the biggest in Brazil), together with his friends Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Paulo Morelli - the pair produced and directed, respectively, the film version of Meirelles's television series City of Men, a spin-off from City of God, released earlier this year.
When they started, it was almost impossible to get funding. "In the late 1980s, early 1990s, there were only a handful of films being made in Brazil each year. This year there are over 90 films being released, and lots of these are from first-time writers and directors, so there's a whole new generation just waiting to emerge." The boom was kick-started by new tax laws in 1993, which encouraged investment in the film industry and helped Meirelles to make his first feature films, Menino Maluquinho 2: a Aventura (1998) and Domésticas (2001), before the Cannes 2002 screening of City of God brought him to the attention of the international film industry. Its slick, Tarantino-esque take on modern Brazil won four Oscar nominations, including Best Director for Meirelles.
Since then, the director has received many invitations to join the Hollywood big league. He has resisted: "I prize my independence too much." Even Blindness, which includes several Hollywood actors in lead roles (Danny Glover, as well as Ruffalo and Moore), was funded by Brazilian, Canadian and Japanese money, and shot in São Paulo with a predominantly Brazilian crew. The choice to use English was apparently a request from Saramago himself, who had initially been reluctant to sell the rights to his novel. "Saramago only asked two things of me when I was making the film. First of all that it be shot in English, to make it seem as universal as possible, and secondly, that the story should not be set anywhere recognisable. That's why we chose to shoot in São Paulo, because audiences don't really know what it looks like. If we'd shot it in London, or New York or Washington, it could have been interpreted as a comment on that particular society - on the Bush administration, for example. But it's not about that, it's a comment on human nature."
Meirelles is proud of the legacy of City of God, and is dismissive of those who criticised it for glamourising the violence of favela life. "After that there was a wave of films about favelas; so something that was invisible for the rest of the country suddenly became visible. The film may not have made a big improvement to everyday life in the favelas, but at least people know much more about them than they did a few years ago." He is keen, however, to move into new, less fraught areas. His latest project is a "silly, light, easy-to-tell comedy" called Twentysomething. "It's about a group of university graduates who are very well prepared for life - except they don't know what to do with themselves." Even so, Hollywood is going to have to wait. "There is a new cinema coming from Brazil, and from South America, and it's a cinema that is very alive and vibrant and touches on urgent matters. Brazil is living in a great moment for film." "Blindness" is released on 21 November