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Soap Slaying Steals Scene in Crime-Ridden Rio

Random, real-life killings don't create the fuss that the death of Fernanda in a well-to-do neighborhood does, to the distress of some.

September 21, 2003|Michael Astor | Associated Press Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — It's the most talked-about killing in recent memory -- a former prostitute struck down by a stray bullet during a gunfight in one of Rio's toniest neighborhoods.

It was front-page news across Brazil, yet the victim was only a character on a novela, or TV soap opera.

The fuss has upset some people who wish that Brazilians would pay as much attention to the random real-life street murders that bedevil life in Rio.

"Five or six people were shot this weekend, but what everyone is talking about is the stray bullet in the novela. Unfortunately, that's the way things are in Brazil," said Denise Souza, 43, a professor who was wounded by a stray bullet in 1993.

The killing of Fernanda on the Globo network and the attendant hubbub underlines Brazil's conflicting realities: one for the rich, another for the poor and -- perhaps the most powerful one of all -- the parallel reality that Globo presents in its nightly novelas.

Over the past decade, stray bullets have become a fact of life in Rio, a crime-ridden metropolis of 10 million people where hundreds fall victim to guns each year, but mostly in the shantytowns on the north side of the city.

Interest in the soap opera death wasn't stirred so much by how Fernanda was killed, but where -- in the well-to-do Leblon neighborhood where violence is usually confined to the newspapers, or TV.

The reality of this math is brutally evident in Rio's homicide statistics.

Although the murder rate on the city's prosperous south side is comparable to that of many major European cities at around 4 per 100,000 people, in the slums, it climbs to 150 per 100,000.

The city's overall murder rate is about 50 per 100,000 -- and Rio is by no means Brazil's most violent city.

Seven others have higher homicide rates.

Manoel Carlos, author of the novela "Women in Love," said that's why Fernanda had to die in Leblon.

"It was a way of alerting the population that what happens on the north side and the poor areas and the outskirts of big cities is starting to threaten the enclaves of the upper middle class, who have always been indifferent to the fate of the less fortunate," Carlos said.

Novelas shouldn't just be mere entertainment, but have a duty to "inform and protest," he said.

It's hard to overstate the power of Globo's novelas, which are a staple of Brazilian life from the edges of the Amazon to the southern plains.

When Fernanda's murder was broadcast last month, 56% of the TV sets in this nation of 170 million people tuned in.

Globo carefully orchestrated the scene's marketing, letting it be known two months earlier that Fernanda was slated to be killed by a stray bullet at some point.

Then the network made the most of complaints that the scene would be bad for Rio's image. Globo said that for a time, city officials even denied permits to film on location.

"There was an initial reaction from people involved in tourism worried about the novela's impact, but the news is very full of violence in Rio. I don't think the novela adds much," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of the anti-violence group Viva Rio. "We live in a situation where the use of firearms has become banal."

Still, the day that Globo filmed the death scene, hundreds of people crowded the streets of Leblon to watch.

The same day, on the other side of town, the director of one of the city's most notori- ous prisons was shot to death while driving home and a policeman died in a hail of machine-gun fire.

Few people seemed to notice. After all, another director of the same prison had been killed on the same avenue less than two weeks earlier, and a police officer is slain in Rio, on average, every other day.

The real murders took a back seat to front-page pictures of Vanessa Gerbelli -- the actress playing Fernanda -- with a bloodstain on her chest and a pained look on her face.

"Globo creates a parallel day-to-day reality which is more palatable, better tasting, than people's real day-to-day, something like Hollywood films in the 1950s," said Roberto da Matta, a Brazilian sociologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

But da Matta believes that the novelas may harm more than they help.

"The novelas glorify the upper middle class, and this is a problem that contributes to the crime in Rio de Janeiro," he said.

"The people are always very beautiful, they're well-dressed, their houses are spectacular."

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