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Brazil protests: Cultural tension was clear in 'City of God,' more

Protests in Brazil surprised some, but rumblings could be felt in films, graffiti art (Os Gemeos), novels ('Heliopolis'), hip-hop (Rappin' Hood).

June 28, 2013|By Reed Johnson
  • Riot police officers talk with anti-government demonstrators near the Castelao stadium in Fortaleza. Brazilians are angry over the billions spent on sports rather than social programs.
Riot police officers talk with anti-government demonstrators near the… (Yuri Cortez, AFP/Getty…)

A novelist writes of a Brazilian mega-city where the rich soar in helicopters above the traffic and the squalor. A movie depicts rogue Rio de Janeiro cops who kill and extort money from terrified slum-dwellers. A hip-hopper in the peripheral neighborhoods of Sao Paulo raps about daily life in the periferia set to the funky rhythms of samba and U.S. soul.

Although the popular outrage that has spilled across Brazil this month has taken some by surprise, the cultural warning signals have been visible for a while.

For at least a decade, a small but telling cross section of movies, books, musical acts and other forms of artistic expression have suggested that the major stress lines in Brazilian society — economic inequality, pervasive corruption, sub-par public services, lack of accountability among the country's elites — were pointing toward a crackup.

In retrospect, those artworks now look like road maps to a nation's psyche, alternately jittery and defiant.

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The alarms have gone off in a few literary works, such as James Scudamore's "Heliopolis" (2009), a bloodier, 21st century version of "Great Expectations" set amid the penthouses and shantytowns of Sao Paulo.

Its protagonist, Ludo, is born in poverty and raised by a single mother before being adopted by a supermarket magnate. He's also having an adulterous affair with his spoiled but luscious adoptive sister, a kind of Estella to his Pip. When Ludo must help establish a chain of supermarkets in the barrio, he's torn between class-tribal loyalties, and the book's denouement teeters between borderline comic and violent.

Evidence of Brazil's growing restlessness also blossomed in the sly social commentaries of the identical twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, known as Os Gemeos ("The Twins"), who for years have been "bombing" graffiti and gigantic cartoon-folkloric imagery across public spaces.

Signs of social unrest could be discerned, too, in the prescient samba/hip-hop musings of musicians such as Rappin' Hood (from the sprawling Heliopolis shantytown), and in feature films like Fernando Meirelles' and Katia Lund's "City of God" (2002) and Jose Padilha's cinematic "trilogy" about the entrenched class bias of the country's criminal justice system ("Bus 174," "Elite Squad" and "Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within").

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"City of God," with its hand-held, documentary verismo style, gave many non-Brazilians an unflinching look at some of the realities of Rio's teeming favelas, of which the mega-city now has about 1,600. Although many of these shantytowns, some with populations of 200,000 or more, are dominated by drug cartels, they also have been brutalized by Brazil's special police forces, like the vigilante units depicted in "Elite Squad."

"Elite Squad" (2007) and "Elite Squad 2," released three years later, illustrated how both Rio's drug gangs and its cops are pawns in a bigger power game played by developers and politicians. Blending harrowing action with scathing social critique, the movies are among the top-grossing releases in Brazilian history, confirming their director's credentials as the country's No. 1 bipartisan scourge.

"I never think in terms of 'left' and 'right,'" Padilha, who is directing the "Robocop" reboot, told me in a 2011 interview. "The state generates violent individuals on one hand by mistreating small-time criminals and street kids and on the other hand by mistreating people who want to be cops."

Caio Junqueira, who plays a rogue officer in "Elite Squad," told me that socially astute, confrontational movies such as Padilha's and "City of God" coincided with a growing desire by Brazilian audiences to engage with more than escapist fantasy.

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"The people got used to this fake universe that the telenovelas created," Junqueira said, referring to Brazil's ubiquitous soap operas. "Serious films reflect the reality of the population. Because of that, the people are no longer putting up with the invented reality that the telenovelas have always tried to push."

As the country's political classes trumpeted Brazil's economic growth and dwindling rates of extreme poverty, some artists turned a skeptical ear to the triumphalist pronouncements.

Last year, director Kleber Mendonca Filho weighed into the discussion with "Neighboring Sounds," a film about the uneasy rumblings of class conflict beneath Brazil's recent financial boom. The action takes place in an upwardly mobile Recife enclave, where the interests of a group of newly middle-class Brazilians who are enjoying the benefits of easy credit, consumer goods and improved schools clash with those of a patriarchal landowner.

The title hints at the developed-world anxiety that results from trying to keep up with the Joneses (or the Santoses).

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