Know who this is and what she stands for? The soap opera is a devastatingly important part of Brazilian culture. And life here imitates art just as often as these shows depict an exaggerated version of reality.
By Dom Phillips
IF you want to try and understand a country or a culture, you could do worse than start with its soap operas. In no country is this more true than Brazil.
English-language soap operas run for decades. In Brazil, novelas, as they’re called, change all the time. This is a country that loves television, and whose television is dominated by the Globo network. And the novela as 9, as the peak-time, 9pm soap is called, is the one half the nation seems to settle down in front of.
The current hit is called Avenida Brasil, and is set, like most of them, in Rio de Janeiro. Much has been said about how this is very much a novela for ‘Classe C’, the famous Brazilian middle class that now constitutes more than 50% of the population.
Actually, Classe C is not a middle class as an American or a European would understand it – although they now own cars, cellphones, computers and the rest of it, it’s all on a much smaller scale than in more developed countries. Classe C actually represents a demographic that in the last few years is slowly beginning to reach a standard of living long enjoyed by, say, the British working class.
But that’s by the by. Avenida Brasil has all the themes that Brazilians love in their soap operas: romance and passion, treachery and revenge, ambition and comeuppance. One of its favourite characters is Suelen, played by actress Isis Valverde, who has helped popularize the current slang word piriguete. Here she is.
What this word actually means depends on who you’re talking to, but basically it’s a party girl whose wardrobe is both revealing and colourful, and designed to attract the attention of men. Both Suelen, the idea of a piriguete, and her wardrobe have struck a nerve in Brazil. There are even songs on youtube about her and the whole piriguete theme, like this one.
Like all good soap operas, there is a sense that Avenida Brasil is sending itself up. There are laughs among the dramas, and comedy amongst the tears. The acting is exaggerated, the dialogue rapid-fire, and you get the feeling both the actors and screenwriters are at times having fun with this. Much like the long-running UK soap Coronation Street, which can be read as a saga of working class life in a Northern town, or as a pantomime. Or indeed, as both.
In one Avenida Brasil scene, Suelen posed for a sexy photo shoot in a soccer kit with a local photographer, while her young husband griped in the background. Here, the local men were the comic target. A bunch of them actually climbed up to peek in through a window at the photo shoot, like schoolboys peeping at the girls’ changing rooms, so desperate were they to ogle their local beauty in her smalls. The scene made them look ridiculous. Brazil might be in many ways a pretty macho society, but in novelas at least women sometimes get the last laugh.
And as much of the novela audience is female, sympathetic female characters are important. In last year’s Insensato Coração (Foolish Heart), actress Camila Pitanga, in the role of a swish, designer clothed executive called Carol, got caught in a love triangle between cheating rat André (Lázaro Ramos) who’d fathered her child, but who she still loved, and a gentlemanly older beau Raul (veteran Antonio Fagundes) who came along to mend her wounded heart.
Then the cheating rat changed his ways and wanted to come back. And the old beau decided to let her go. And Carol stood in the middle of all of this with tears welling in her eyes. It was a storyline that could have been played out as weepy romance; instead it was played out with delicacy and sensitivity.
Nor is it all love and passion in novela-land. Insensato Coração had as one of its central characters a corrupt, middle-aged banker, Cortez (Herson Capri), whose crimes were unmasked by a dogged blogger. The sort of story that, in real life, regularly makes news in Brazil.
The impact of all this on his family was also cleverly portrayed, while the character of his dumb younger girlfriend, a one-time reality show star called Natalie Lamour played with gleeful abandon by Deborah Secco, was a vicious send-up on Brazil’s vacuous celebrity culture.
But it’s not just art following life in Brazilian novelas – and yes, soap operas are a populist art form, whether we like to admit it or not. Life sometimes follows art. As happened in July when Rosane Collor, big-spending ex-wife of Fernando Collor, the Brazilian former president impeached in 1992 or corruption, appeared on Brazil’s biggest TV show Fantastico to plug a book she was writing.
Her book was going to detail all the dark secrets of the couple’s time in power, such as the black magic ceremonies she alleged her former husband took part in while president, in a murky period of Brazilian history beautifully detailed in Peter Robb’s book ‘A Death In Brazil’. But the audience didn’t care: Rosane’s allegations had all been heard before. They were too busy howling at her insistence that she couldn’t live on the monthly allowance of R$18,000 ($8,877) her ex paid her.
Rio de Janeiro tabloid Extra zoomed in the blonde hairdo and cream suit Rosane was wearing for her Fantastico interview, and how she seemed to have borrowed the whole look from Carminha, the villain played by Adriana Esteves who is another central character in Avenida Brasil. You can make your own comparison.
“The two don’t just resemble each other in their beige look,” Extra said. “Like Carminha, the great villain of the Avenida Brasil soap opera, Rosane Collor insists on denying her past as first lady, dreams of living with a lot of money, evokes her religiosity the whole time and wants to enter political life.”
And one had the distinct feeling that Carminha, the villain that Brazil loves to hate, was so much more popular than Rosane, the former first lady that nobody could even be bothered to dislike.