Forget the last-second upsetsand histrionic losses.The greatest sight of the Olympic Games passes well before mostathletes even begin competing: the opening ceremony. Rio de Janeiro preferred an unexpected partner to generate this symbolof Brazil, which will be seen by three billion people: Fernando Meirelles, best known for his grim depictionof Rios crime-ridden favelas in City of god .

Sure, the directorwho createda visionof the citythat Roger Ebert called ” breathtaking and scaring” might seem like the last person youd nameyour visual ambassador to the world. But given the nation Brazil finds itself in latelyand the eroding of the uneasypeace the governmental forces brought to the favelas during the 2010 World CupMeirelles may justbe the person or persons most well-suited to tell a story of national pride, while acknowledging the country's problems.

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A Blockbuster Event on an Indie Budget

No one knows for sure what Meirelles has planned, althoughBrazilian model Gisele Bndchen reportedly will be involved, maybe in some sort of assault scene. Brazil has suffered economic and political upheaval in the seven years since theInternational Olympic Committee selected Rio. Today the country faces an outbreak of Zika and its worst recession in a century, and in the lead-up to the Games, some wonderedhow bad things mightget.None of this is lost on Meirelles. In fact, itmight be what he's best at.He has a proven track record of looking at ugly subject matter and rendering it elegantly, tells Ernesto Acevedo-Muoz, a cinema historianat theUniversity of Colorado.

The IOC would notmakeMeirelles available for this story, but he has saidthat hisbudget is less than one-tenth what London spent on Danny Boyle's ceremony in 2012 and less than one-twentieth of the $100 million that Beijing needed in2 008.” It does not make sense to be extravagant in this moment that the country is facing ,” hesaidin a tale the IOC posted about his team preparing for tonight's event.” It will not be a high-tech rite, it will be high-concept .”

Now the opening ceremony is no longer just a welcome for visiting athletes; its a global public relations campaign.

Opening ceremonies used to be low-key. David Wallechinsky, the president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, attended his first opening ceremony during the course of its 1960 Summer Games in Rome.The stands werent full, he says. The athletes marched in, there was the lighting of the torch, the swearing in–it was a pretty simple thing. For years, the opening ceremony let those attending to show patriotism, and theyfollowed astraightforward checklist of events.( The 1964 olympiadin Tokyo wasa notable exception: Organizers senta bespoke perfumewafting over the crowd, and later sold it aslimited-edition souvenir .)

Blametelevision for the ceremony becoming a global PR campaign. The sight reached new heights during the Cold War, with the USSR and the US flexing their muscles at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 ceremonies in Los Angeles. Moscow put on an enormous production of pageantry not find since the 1936 games in Nazi Germany, tells Bryan Pinkall, a music prof at Kansas State University who maintains an online database of modern Olympics ceremonies and is helping stage musical numbers at tonight's ceremony.

These days, two of every three people in the world watch the opening ceremony, and host countries are eager to impress.

From Warm Welcome to Must-Watch TV

Since the patriotic pageantry of the Cold War, the opening ceremony has become a chance to presenta national identity. In 2002, the US offered a unified vision of what it meant to be American in the aftermath of 9/11. Six years later China utilized its $100 million rite to herald its emergence as a world power.

That massive production signaled a shift in the production of these events. Until then, organizers relied upon professional event planners. The China Olympics Committee chosedirector Zhang Yimou, perhaps best known for House of Flying Daggers , to tell a more cinematic story.

Yimou told a triumphant historyof China clearly designed for a television audience. The highlights are mostly shots that the audience would never watch: the rapid drum of one of 2,008 percussionists; the facial expressionsof dancers; an intricate marionette performance of a Peking opera. The event, which Steven Spielberg described as” arguably the grandest sight of the new millennium ,” awed the world.

In 2012, London followed Beijings example, tappingDanny Boyle–another internationally known filmmaker–to direct the ceremony. Boyle, who made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire , took a different approach.The London ceremony focused on British pop culture: Mr. Bean playing akeyboard for Chariots of Fire ; a read by J.K. Rowling; James Bond carrying the Queen; Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, tweeting “this is for everyone.”

For a country like Brazil, with itsproudtraditions to extol and enduring problems to recognise, adirector who cancommunicate that complex identityis paramount.” These are spectacles designed more than anything to sell the country ,” tells Acevedo-Muoz. Brazil has to show a really good face on that opening day. That stimulates the choice of Meirelles terribly important, as someone who knows his route around gritty subject matter .” Riohas selected a universallyrecognized director who will offera nuanced vision of what stimulates his country unique–not just to the worlds best athletes, but to billions of viewers worldwide.

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