RIO DE JANEIRO — A beautiful young woman who returns to her hometown to take revenge on her evil stepmother. Dark love triangles, fiery obsession and the casual sensuality of a free-spirited young woman. A murder mystery. Intrigue. An underdog soccer team.
Nothing else captures the attention of Brazil like its telenovelas, massively popular nighttime soap operas. Except perhaps for the World Cup, there is nothing else that brings the country together like the carefully polished big-budget dramas. But a recent tale that reflected profound changes in the rising nation has gone far above and beyond the established levels of national obsession, so much so that the president had to reschedule an important campaign event around its final moments.
Of course, many of the themes in "Avenida Brasil" were familiar. But almost everyone is now saying the choice of characters and location among the country's striving middle class, which has swollen by about 40 million people in the last decade, was ground-breaking. Indeed, many now say, "Avenida Brasil" actually changed the way the country sees itself.
"I felt that Brazil's new rising class wasn't so interested in watching more and more shows about the country's super-elite," says João Emanuel Carneiro, who wrote "Avenida Brasil" and now is being called one of the country's most influential people. "This new class isn't interested in the values or culture of the rich. They're interested in seeing themselves."
Until recently, telenovelas invariably took place in exclusive locales far out of the reach of the vast majority of Brazilians. Like this one, actually, at the poolside bar of the famous Copacabana Palace hotel, where sheltered celebrities tan across the street from the beach and the gregarious Carneiro talks about his smash hit over a tropical drink.
Unsatisfied after finishing his last telenovela, "A Favorita," about a rich business family, he decided on a new approach. If entertainment here wasn't about the old elite, it had, "on the other hand, a focus on violence and misery in poor neighborhoods," such as you see in well-known movies like "City of God" or "Elite Squad," says the 42-year-old screenwriter. "But that [dichotomy] is just not what you feel on the street anymore."
Long one of the most unequal societies on Earth, Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world to actually decrease its income gap over the last few years, after the government of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva oversaw a period of economic growth and new social assistance programs for the poor. Now, the middle income group, or "lower middle class," which earns an average of $750 a month per family, makes up more than half the population, and huge groups of people that were previously ignored are becoming recognized as full citizens — and just as important — as a hugely powerful consumer group.
Carneiro says he had no nudging from the powerful Globo television network, which ran the show and runs all the country's biggest telenovelas, to give it a middle-class setting. But he acknowledges that his idea fit together quite well with Globo's awareness of new commercial realities. "They would have never approved this idea a few years ago," he says.
The network must be glad it did. The show may have made more than $1 billion by some estimates through advertisements by Procter & Gamble, Pampers, Kia, Carrefour, Volkswagen and Ford, among others.
An estimated 80 million people — nearly half the population — watched the finale in October, and the show regularly hit more than half of the viewing public throughout its seven-month season (179 episodes), a feat rarely achieved on American television.
In the wake of the show, commentators say the future landscape for culture and entertainment has changed, having been dragged up to speed with social reality by "Avenida Brasil." "It brought a new way to narrate the telenovela," says Mauro Alencar, professor at the University of São Paulo specializing in television. "It captured social changes, new economic dislocations and used them as background."
Some of the character decisions were emblematic of new patterns. There was Tufão, the retired soccer star played by Murilo Benicio, who got rich but decided to stay in his humble neighborhood. Monalisa, played by Heloísa Périssé, uses money from her hair-care line to move to rich Ipanema but doesn't like it. People there aren't friendly with one another in the streets, and the boys are bland to boot. Where she is from, the neighborhood corner bar is the meeting point, not the country club.
The main character, vengeful and beautiful Nina (Débora Falabella), has been abandoned by her evil stepmother, Carminha (Adriana Esteves), and Carminha's lover, Max (Marcello Novaes), then makes her way to Argentina and back before the audience is left with a classic soap cliffhanger, "Who killed Max?" — and unexpected forgiveness.
There is populist language and fashions, and around the country a fashion trend was inspired by the beautiful, carefree Suelen (Isis Valverde), who liked to take off what little clothes she was wearing.
But the show was not just popular with the working poor. By the end, it had won legions of fans among the young, hip and well-educated, including those who might never watch a telenovela.
"This one was really different," says Cassia Tabatini, an artist and photographer in São Paulo. "It was very, very Brazil. It could even be said to sum up what the country is, in a way. It showed our style of life, what we treasure, but also our violence, our dark side. And it was very heavy — it changed every day, and sometimes I couldn't sleep after watching it. It got to me."
The show was praised for ambiguous characterization and relentless, emotionally powerful drama. Some of the final scenes brought comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's flashy directing style. Carneiro, who started his career wanting to direct films, says he was most inspired by Italian neorealism and Russian novels.
He himself grew up in the upscale southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, where telenovelas are traditionally set, to a poet and art critic mother. At 18, he was discovered as a screenwriting talent and went on to work on films such as "Central do Brasil," about a homeless boy, before beginning to write telenovelas.
The world of television is more democratic than that of film, he says, and anyone with talent can theoretically make it. But as in much of Brazil, the top levels of this world are mostly controlled by the old elite, and it was not the middle class that wrote their own story here.
Notably, all of the main actors in the telenovela were white, in a country where more than half the population self-identifies as black or brown-skinned. But by the standards of the past, "Avenida Brasil" was nevertheless a daring program in what is still a very class-conscious country.
Even while singing the praises of the show and of the rising middle class, the press here can use language that sounds distinctly old-school, if not downright offensive.
"Loud, and with no manners, but still happy and friendly workers: those are the characters on 'Avenida Brazil', a mirror held up to millions of Brazilians that have recently risen out of poverty," wrote Exame, an influential local business magazine, while praising the show as an "audience champion and true phenomenon on the streets and social networks."
After a bit of a vacation since "Avenida Brasil" ended last year, Cordeiro is already at work developing his next telenovela, planned for 2015.
He writes alone but receives notes from three or four other writers. More than 150 people worked on "Avenida," and each episode cost about $350,000 to make.
There isn't a set idea he can talk about yet, but he's sure about some things. Someday, he wants to get back to his dream of making films, lamenting that few high-quality Brazilian movies have come out in recent years.
In recent years, the interchange between the world of Brazilian and American entertainment industries has increased, he notes, especially with the "Elite Squad" movie franchise, which won critical acclaim and some audiences here, and whose director, José Padilha, was tipped to remake "Robocop."
He rejects some predictable temptations. Enjoying a fruit dessert, he replies to one question: "If I can make something that is watched every night by 70 million people, why in the world would I want to go to Hollywood?"