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Brazil: Understanding Novelas

By Ricky Skelton
One of the first things you learn about Brazil from your Brazilian friends is how much everybody loves their novelas (the soap operas). But they don't really explain to you just what a national obsession they are, or why. In houses, kiosks, bars, hotels, and even on a boat up "The Big River" (where one man was employed to move the satellite dish around for better reception), everybody stops to watch their favourite novela in silence. Never having been one to watch soaps at home, it was very difficult for me to understand the attraction, but I tried.

It might be the glamour of watching handsome people in opulent settings making a mess of their lives, with the bad people usually getting their comeuppance somewhere along the line. Fairly predictable.

It might be the quality of the storylines, although even with my limited knowledge of Portuguese, I find this a little unlikely.

One of the plot devices utilised to save time and energy writing a proper story is to have one character listening behind a door/window/screen to two others gossiping/scheming/declaring love for each other. These scenes always finish one of two ways - the good character listening to two bad ones is shown in close-up with mouth wide open in wonder and worry; or the dodgy character listening is shown with a knowing half-smile on their face, ready to use the information for nefarious means. Nothing unusual.

It might be the quality of the acting, but as the cast of characters are the same in every novella I doubt it. You have: the main character with morals, the rich bad guy and flaky wife plus mistress, the comedy family, the dull pretty couple who never argue with each other, the youngish Rogue with attendant women, youngish nice guy with attendant women (usually shared with rogue), the only slightly rebellious daughter and - best of all - the mad middle-aged woman.

The acting varies from the permanently-wide-eyed-with-amazement of the comedy figures to the worryingly convincing mad middle aged women, who are by far the best actors in any novela. This is perhaps because when playing the psychotic part it is open to question just how much acting is involved for a Brasileira. So, probably not that.

One novela had a character travelling to Africa for the UNHCR and sending postcards to his wife about working with HIV victims from Nairobi's shanty town, the size and degradation of which makes the favelas look petite and chic. An idea that needs exporting but probably not one that attracts people to watching in the first place.

So what is it? I still have no idea but I watch just in case. I even spend my days hoping that one of them might need somebody to play the part of, say, an English teacher. And I justify watching them by saying it would help my Portuguese, or because some of the actresses make fantastic scenery, but my relationship with novelas is like my relationship with smoking, or at least how it used to be - I had no interest at first, then I started just to pass the time with other people. After that, I convinced myself that I could take it or leave it as I pleased but the taking grew and the leaving stopped. I had to quit before it took control over my life, as I will with the novelas if I'm not careful. But for now Cobras & Lagartos is starting so I'd better finish here.

Previous articles by Ricky:

Brazil: Bus fires in São Paulo - always a bad thing?

9/26/2006


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