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Brazil's Hit Soap Opera Traces Nation's Class Conflict

by Mario Osava

Soap Operas Play Role In Venezuela's Battle For Power

(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- A woman from the impoverished Brazilian northeast who triumphs as a business owner in Rio, a newspaper shut down by the military dictatorship, the 20-year search for a kidnapped daughter, homosexuality and corrupt politicians are just a few of the plot threads keeping Brazilians close to their TV sets waiting for the next episode of the latest hit soap opera, Senhora do Destino (Lady of Destiny).

This complex web of storylines, moving along at a faster pace than most Brazilian soaps, has helped the series maintain high ratings even four months after its debut, and saved it from the slump that tends to hit midway through relatively "long" soap operas in Brazil.

Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, where these series can go on indefinitely, Latin American soap operas, or "telenovelas," have a predetermined beginning and end, since a specific number of episodes are produced, and tend to last between six and eight months.

Another major difference is that Latin American soaps are broadcast daily during "primetime" evening hours, not in the afternoons.

Lady of Destiny's writer, Aguinaldo Silva, has already written more than 20 scripts for the powerful Globo TV network, which produces the vast majority of Brazilian soaps. Most of his stories are set in the country's north-eastern region, from which he originally hails.

In Silva's opinion, class conflict constitutes the allure of all Brazilian "telenovelas," which allow viewers to vicariously live out their dreams of upward social mobility. Apparently, the country's colossal social inequality is the primary source for the continued popularity of soaps.

This time, he chose the setting of Rio de Janeiro and the densely populated shantytowns on its outskirts, home to most of the poor immigrants from the northeast who come to the big city searching for a better life.

Silva and a small circle of other veteran writers face the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping tens of millions of Brazilians in front of their TV sets every night, from Monday to Saturday, with a genre that has represented the most popular programming on Globo for close to 40 years.

Brazilian soaps are also a major export commodity for Globo, which sells these series to over 100 countries. Some have earned devout followings in places with surprisingly different cultures, like China and Hungary.

The consolidation of Globo as a sort of Brazilian "Hollywood" for telenovelas means that there is little room for innovation in what has become an established formula for these series. As a result, coming up with stories that succeed in winning back or expanding the large audience first garnered by the impressively creative soaps of the 1970s is a daunting feat.

This makes the success of Lady of Destiny especially remarkable. Aside from drawing consistently high numbers of viewers, the soap has also set a new record for product placement, a kind of hidden advertising, when companies pay to have their merchandise featured as part of the storyline. Each placement costs close to $100,000, and the soap includes an average of one per episode.

Advertisements of the series itself focus mainly on Maria do Carmo, the character played by Suzana Vieira, despite the fact that the actress is well into her 50s.

Maria is the poor immigrant from the northeast who becomes a successful businesswoman in Rio, raising four children single-handedly along the way, while never giving up the search for the fifth, a daughter kidnapped as a baby.

While she isn't the kind of sex symbol typically favored in advertising, Maria is a positive, inspiring character, and has attracted a strong following as a result.

The series' multiple intertwined storylines begin in 1968, when Maria arrives in Rio de Janeiro from the northeast, with her five small children in tow. She comes to the city in search of her older brother, who emigrated to the city years earlier, and works as the chauffeur of a newspaper owner.

Her arrival coincides with a clampdown by the U.S.-backed military dictatorship (1964-1985) and the repression of the student movement that turned the streets of Rio de Janeiro into a battlefield.

Maria is arrested and jailed, her newborn daughter is snatched by a prostitute who uses the baby to force her lover to marry her, Maria's other children are sent to an orphanage, and the newspaper is shut down.

The action shifts forward several decades to the present. The poor immigrant is now a prosperous business owner on the outskirts of Rio, her journalist lover is trying to reopen the old newspaper, and the search for her daughter is moving toward its final denouement, mirroring real events that took place in 2002, involving a family from Goiania, in western Brazil.

The various groups of characters whose lives are brought together by the soap serve as a vehicle for exploring the issues that affect the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro and its outskirts, including domestic violence, drugs, crime, and young people rebelling against the rigid moral strictures or elitist snobbery of their parents.

The soap also features a subplot about Rio's famous samba "schools," a highlight of the city's world-famous carnival. The sponsor of this particular school is the head of an illegal but tolerated lottery, who is striving for recognition as a respectable businessman.

And to spice things up even further, the subject of homosexuality is introduced roughly halfway through the series, when one of the young women characters becomes caught up in the struggle between social prejudices and her own growing feelings for another woman.

Silva acknowledges that Lady of Destiny is in some ways autobiographical, given his own experiences as an immigrant from the northeast who had to overcome countless difficulties to achieve his current position in society.

He also suffered considerable discrimination as an openly -- although not militantly -- gay man.

Before embarking on his career as a soap writer, Silva was a conventional writer, who published 13 novels, although he admits that most of them are not very good.

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2004 (

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