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In Brazil, the night belongs to novelas. But gays are still waiting for their first kiss.

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Bruna Lombardi as Diadorim in "The Devil To Pay In The Backlands," 1980. Renata Falzoni/ Visual Rede Globo

Television

Gay Bombshells in Brazil's Soaps

by Marcus Valéria

APRIL 10, 2001. On any given evening, you can walk the streets of any Brazilian town while following the plot of your favorite Brazilian TV soap opera, or novela. Their overheated soundtracks seem to waft out of every home, bar, restaurant, and outdoor cafe in this country of 172 million. In Brazil, the night belongs to novelas.

Novelas are one of Brazil's main addictions, up there with soccer and music. They are also big business: Brazil exports its wildly successful TV soap operas to 128 countries, including the United States, China, and Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Queer characters have appeared in Brazilian soaps since the early 1970's. The earliest soap with a gay angle was probably "The Stud" (1972), a cross-dressing romance written by Bráulio Pedroso. In it, a woman named Stanislava (played by the Polish-Brazilian actor-director Ziembinsky, a man) dreams about her Prince Charming, a circus trapeze artist, while in a drug-induced state.

Ziembinsky went on to play millionaire Conrad Mahler in the 1974 series "The Wild Party." Mahler has a love affair with the studly Cauê (Buza Ferraz). The main plot revolves around a murder that occurs during a party. The case is solved at the end of the series: Conrad murdered Sylvia (Bete Mendes) because he was jealous of the young woman's relationship with Cauê.

Beginning with the murderous Conrad Mahler who snuffed poor Sylvia, almost three decades ago, the story lines of Brazilian soaps have often been cruel and unsympathetic to queer characters. These have been portrayed with few, if any, redeeming qualities, and, in many cases, used for comic relief. Many have ended up committing suicide, murdered, or accidentally blown up. But other gay characters have set off their own bombshells by attacking sexual and racial stereotypes.

Pushing the Political Envelope
Under the military government, a novela that successfully managed to push the political envelope was Gilberto Braga's 1981 "Brilliant." In an emotionally charged scene, Inácio (Denis Carvalho) comes out to his mother, the powerful and domineering Chica Newman, played by 1999 Academy Award Nominee Fernanda Montenegro. Inácio happily stays with his boyfriend, an antique dealer in Paris. The relationship between the two men is handled with all the subtlety and innuendo needed to pass the strict guidelines of the heavy-handed Federal Department of Censorship, enforced by the military government of the time.

Military censors were not the only ones guarding the public morality gates. Angry viewers forced writer Lauro César Muniz to pull Anabela (Ney Lattoraca), Florisbela (Marco Nanini), and Olga del Volgo ( Patricio Bisso), three hilarious transvestites, from his 1985 series "One More Dream." The three were among the most delightfully outrageous characters ever in Brazilian soap opera history.

Another Muniz soap, the 1986 "Roda de Fogo" also incurred the wrath of the censors when it included a sadomasochistic affair between a man and his butler, complete with basement dungeon filled with toys. The butler was promptly killed off.

Black and White Kiss
A truly groundbreaking series was "The Next Victim" (1995), whose main plot revolved around several mysterious murders. A subplot concerned two gay men who become romantically involved. There is a slowly developing romance, a coming out segment, and a happy ending, which includes a sort of gay "marriage."

The series, written by Silvio de Abreu, also broke new ground because one of the gay men was black and the other was white. The black gay man's family was portrayed as solidly middle-class and successful, a far cry from the traditional servant roles many soap operas assign black characters. After many trials and tribulations, both families accepted the two men in their loving relationship. The gay couple, Sandrinho and Jefferson, was played by the actors André Goncalves and Lui Mendes with carefully calibrated innuendo and absolutely no display of public affection. It was left to the audience to fill in the blanks.

Globo TV Network, the series producers, promised the first gay kiss in the history of Brazilian TV. The prolonged suspense lured viewers and pumped up the ratings. But in the end, the much-hyped gay kiss was not shown, which caused an uproar among queers all over Brazil.

Although most viewers reacted positively to the show's gay content, there was some conservative backlash. And the actors were actually harassed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

"The Next Victim" has gone largely unnoticed by U.S. Spanish-speaking viewers. It is currently being shown in Manhattan on the GEMS Cable Channel 126, on DTV.

Testing the Limits
"Xica," produced by Brazil's Manchete TV Network in 1997, was a smash hit in the United States when the Telemundo Network showed it, dubbed into Spanish.

The series, which tested the limits of what was permissible to broadcast in Brazil, was loosely based on the life of a historical figure, Xica da Silva, a smart and ambitious slave who managed to win her freedom in mid-nineteenth century Brazil.

In the soap opera, Xica (Taís Araújo) acquired a comedic gay sidekick, the flamboyant, and entirely fictitious José Maria. Played by Guilherme Piva, the character became a instant hit with Brazilian viewers. José Maria was given an ambiguously happy ending: he entered a marriage of convenience with a woman, had kids, and finally free, moved out of town with them and his male lover...a black slave.

The series helped prop up the ever-ailing Manchete against the overwhelming power of its archrival, Globo TV, which produced all the other series mentioned here. Telemundo is currently showing late night reruns.

Lesbian Bombshells
Lesbian characters seem to appear in Brazilian soaps about once every decade. The first glimpse of lesbians in a Brazilian soap was probably in a subplot of the aforementioned 1974 series, "The Wild Party." Bored with her marriage, Glorinha (Isabel Ribeiro) runs away with Roberta (Regina Viana). The last scene between the two women is the closest Brazilian TV has ever come to a lesbian kiss. A fade-in montage of Rio's Sugar Loaf mountain prevented a full view of it. At the precise moment the two pairs of lips were about to touch, two cable cars crossing each other blurred the image. It was like two ships almost bumping in the night.

Next came the 1979 "The Giants," which hinted at a relationship between Paloma (Dina Sfat) and Renata (Lídia Brondi). Brazil was ruled at the time by military governments (1964-1985), which censored anything that even alluded to lesbianism. The soap writer had the character Paloma commit suicide.

Ten years later, lesbians fared somewhat better in Gilberto Braga's "Anything Goes" (1988). Laís (Cristina Prochaska) and Cecília (Lala Deheizelin) owned a bed and breakfast in the fashionable beach resort of Búzios. After Cecília died in an accident, Laís had to fight to be recognized as her girlfriend's rightful heir. Finally, the court ruled in her favor, she became sole owner of the business, and she even found a new girlfriend, Marília (Bia Seidl).

The lesbian survival rate in Brazilian soaps suffered another setback in the 1990's. The chic lesbian couple in Silvio de Abreu's 1998 "Tower of Babel," Leila (Sílvia Pfeifer) and Rafaela (Christioni Torloni), was blamed by the critics for the series' disappointing ratings. Shortly thereafter, the two were killed in an explosion that ripped apart the shopping mall at the center of the story line.

In the 1980's, Bruna Lombardi played Diadorim, a woman who passes as a man to survive in the macho world of gunmen and cowboys of the Brazilian hinterland. The series was an adaptation of the classic 1956 Brazilian novel "The Devil To Pay In The Backlands," by João Guimarães Rosa. Things get complicated when the outlaw Riobaldo (Tony Ramos) falls in love with Diadorim and is tormented by the fear of being a homosexual. In the end, Riobaldo finds out that Diadorim is really a woman, so his "manhood" is saved. But it is too late to woo her. Diadorim is dead.

Queer Trouble
In recent years, some soaps have run into trouble with Brazil's increasingly outspoken queer community. The hugely successful "Smooth Poison," by Aguinaldo Silva (1999), outraged gay activists because the main character's sidekick, a sissy queen named Edilberto (Luís Carlos Tourinho), was constantly hit, kicked, abused, and harassed by the object of his affection, a hunky heterosexual male. Straight viewers were led to believe that Edilberto's "gay behavior" was the cause of this violent reaction, in other words, that he deserved to be treated with such homophobic zeal.

In the meantime, the series main character, Ualber (Diego Vilela), a flaming psychic reputedly based on the real life TV psychic Walter Mercado, lived in a platonic relationship with a "confused straight man" while performing his duties as head of his (biological) family, the latter a common situation in Brazilian gay life. There is a happy ending, however, since Ualber finally finds true love with another man, played by Licurgo Spínola.

A Kiss, At Last?
The first gay-(sub)themed Brazilian soap of the twenty-first century is "An Angel Fell From Heaven," written by Antonio Calmon. It's still broadcasting in Brazil and currently can be seen in the United States via the Globo TV International Dish Satellite System. The main plot line is about an angel sent to earth to fix some business relationships and souls.

A subplot revolves around three men who work in the fashion industry. Two are gay, and the third one is an impostor. Selmo de Windsor (Daniel Dantas) is an extremely flamboyant and decadent Brazilian fashion designer who lives in London. When he dies at the beginning of the series, his servant Paulinho (Cássio Gabus Mendes), who is heterosexual, assumes his identity and flies back to Brazil. Paulinho's new gay identity becomes a hindrance when he decides to win the love of a young, rich Brazilian lady—which provides endless comedic fodder for the series. The third man is Ávila (Louis Salem) a queen who is a fashion design student.

Given the fate of queers in Brazilian soap operas for the past three decades, one can only hope that the writers of "Angel" do not choose to have their gay characters chased to their deaths by a runaway sewing machine, or poisoned by an anorexic supermodel who thinks she is the star and wants to stamp out the screaming fashionistas and everything they stand for.

Maybe we'll even see on the TV screens that elusive, first gay kiss that Brazilian soap operas have been promising for more than a generation. Pucker up and stay tuned!

Related links:

For the Brazilian gay portal MixBrasil where you can choose the endings for interactive photo novelas.(Portuguese only).

For "An Angel Fell From Heaven," in the Globo TV web site. Don't miss the fluttering angel!

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