This evening, millions will tune in to a world-famous spectacle involving carefully choreographed moves, intense competition and fanatical spectators. Viewers will largely put aside their complaints that it has lost its authenticity and become beholden to deep-pocket sponsors.
No, it's not the Super Bowl.
It's Carnaval season, a time of bacchanalian bashes and a fierce determination by the city's many samba clubs to shine in the trademark parades that begin this evening at Rio's Sambodromo, the Carnaval stadium.
Purists object that "Carnaval Inc." has devolved into an advertisement for interests as diverse as airlines, unions and milk producers -- along with organized-crime gangs. Samba clubs, or schools, seek out cash-cow sponsors to finance pageants that can cost several million dollars and months of work to assemble.
"The space for poetry, for fun, for social and political criticism, or even for pure historical themes . . . has become minimal," wrote Aloy Jupiara, a journalist and Carnaval specialist. "Now most themes must have an appeal to the market."
Foreign governments have even gotten into the act. Two years ago, Venezuela's state petroleum monopoly, with the blessing of President Hugo Chavez, chipped in more than $500,000 to the Vila Isabel school, which won the competition.
Outsiders may imagine raucous partyers sashaying down the streets as merry bystanders dance and sip capirinhas, the refreshing national cocktail. Such free celebrations, known as blocos, do proliferate during Carnaval season, and are enjoying a resurgence.
But blocos are not part of the headliner, big-money spectacle kicking off tonight at the sold-out Sambodromo.
Choice tickets can cost $500 or more. Scalpers ply their trade outside the gates. The prices have largely shut out working-class spectators. Celebrities, tourists, politicians and the beautiful people have supplanted them.
Like Super Bowl fans in the U.S., most Brazilians will watch from living rooms and bars, as thousands ofscantily clad dancers, raucous musicians and gargantuan floats roll ostentatiously down the concrete runway.
"The Sambodromo is too commercial," said Renata Cunha, who, along with her daughter, Bruna, 3, was out for one of the pre-Carnaval block parties in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood. "They're all competing for points, after all."
The 12 top schools that will perform in all-night marathons today and Monday are judged on categories such as costumes, choreography, floats, music and story lines. The big payoffs are future sponsorships and a piece of TV rights, ticket sales, official subsidies and other revenue streams.
The corporate and government money stands alongside another funding source: gambling receipts. It has long been an open secret that kingpins of the city's underground numbers racket, jogo do bicho (the animal game), have underwritten samba schools.
Concern has been mounting about the influence of the narcos who battle police in the hillside favelas that are home to many samba clubs.
Last month, hundreds of police raided the Mangueira favela and discovered a secret passage to its venerable samba school complex. Traffickers keen to hide their presence were said to use the concealed entryway. Police are still seeking Francisco Paulo Testas Monteiro, known as Tuchinha, samba composer and alleged dealer. Tuchinha reportedly threw a barbecue to mark the selection of his tune as the club's theme song in this weekend's Carnaval.
Despite the commercialization and suspect funding, Carnaval remains an electric time.
Each year, unpaid multitudes loyal to samba schools memorize verses and practice dance steps. Participants are young and old, fat and skinny, white and black and every hue in between, along with a smattering of foreign tourists who pay as much as $2,500 to make merry. Many buy their own costumes, known as fantasias.
For one day, they get to strut their stuff on a global stage.
During Carnaval week, the ubiquitous pounding of drums eclipses the usual clamor of urban life. Conformity and routine yield to riotous abandon. For some, life's disappointments get lost in a kind of collective ecstasy.
"I used to come with my family, all costumed as the Flintstones," said Glaucio Gomes, decked out as Fred Flintstone at one of the blocos that swagger through streets from ritzy Copacabana to the favelas. "But now I'm a sad man," he added, seeming far from clinically depressed as he chatted up the girl standing next to him. "My wife left me and the kids don't want to come."
Rio's rough Madureira neighborhood is the home of Imperio Serrano samba school. The fanatically loyal imperianos have put their hopes this year in the indomitable spirit ofCarmen Miranda, a former Rio hat-maker who made it big, though she may be best remembered in Hollywood for her fruit-topped hats.
The club chose the late movie star in a pitch for lost glory: She was also the subject of the samba theme in 1972, when the club last won the Carnival trophy.
In a bow to their muse, costume designers stressed multicolored headgear: oversized fedoras, soaring admiral's hats, Inca-style crowns, broad-brimmed Mexican sombreros, matador caps -- all embroidered with a garish mix of pompoms, glitter, ribbons, stylized fruit, candles and most every other imaginable adornment.
"I did everything I could to make you love me," read the lament from a Miranda song on a clubhouse banner facing legions of sweaty dancers during a pre-Carnaval pep rally.
Rich kids from Ipanema boogied alongside the locals, all donning the club's green and white shirts, emblazoned with Miranda's image.
Some drank $2 bottles of beer and wolfed down plates of sausage with farofa, fried manioc flour.
"With this deep feeling, this great spirit of Carmen Miranda, we must triumph!" the emcee, known as Georgie, roared over the deafening din. "We can't lose! Everyone, to the Carnaval!"
Special correspondent Marcelo Soares contributed to this report.