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  • Jennifer Green

Column: Films, Series Offer a Glimpse into Pre-Bolsonaro Brazil

They call him the “Trump of the Tropics.”

But according to people inside Brazil, their newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro has more in common with the vicious Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte than with Trump.

A former army captain, Bolsonaro has threatened political opponents, restricted press coverage, vowed he believes in torture, said he’d rather his own son die than be gay and claimed women don’t deserve equal pay.

He’s also pledged to crack down on widespread crime and corruption, which likely helped fuel his 55 percent victory.

I had a chance to interview journalists, filmmakers and politicians in Brazil recently about their reactions to Bolsonaro. Most expressed serious concerns. Before the election, hundreds of artists signed a manifesto decrying the threat they feel he represents to democracy, and promising to “join forces” to defend freedom and tolerance.

Some people I spoke to had faith that Bolsonaro would tone down his campaign rhetoric once in office, or that economic reforms, done right, could help Brazil. These are the best hopes in this diverse yet unequal society and among film professionals in an industry reliant on government funding.

Though the majority of Brazilian films don’t play widely in US theaters, many can be found on streaming services. Here are some films and series that offer a glimpse into pre-Bolsonaro Brazil, and may help illustrate the context that spawned his far-right political movement.

Race, Poverty & Violence

Among the filmmakers to sign the pre-election manifesto was Fernando Meirelles, acclaimed director of “City of God,” one of Brazil’s most successful films of all time with four Oscar nominations in 2004 and critics’ groups rankings as one of the decade’s best movies.

Despite this success, “City of God” is hard to watch. A dizzying rhythm explodes in the opening collage, prefacing a gang of armed boys chasing a chicken through Rio’s favelas, and lasts the full two hours.

Welcome to the vast and lawless shantytown known as the “City of God” and referred to in the movie as Vietnam, an apt analogy considering the film’s 70s-era portrayal of war-like carnage.

Boys form the tale’s nucleus – from adolescent runners who grow up to become drug bosses and roving bands of armed pre-pubescents known as the “Runts,” to the protagonist Rocket, whose talent as a photographer provides his ticket out of the slums.

The movie is split into interwoven vignettes based on true stories, with a voiceover by Rocket recounting decades of criminal activity and vicious bloodshed.

What makes the unbearable watchable is the hope inherent in Rocket’s character, and the film’s gripping style, which one critic called a Scorsese-esque display of sun-soaked lighting, handheld cameras and hyperkinetic editing.

Scandals & Corruption

“City of God” is streaming on Amazon, while Netflix has a one-hour documentary revisiting the stars and settings of the original film ten years later.

Several of the hundreds of actual favela residents who were hired to act in the film describe how the movie and its international success changed their lives. In some cases, the experience led to work in Hollywood or local careers. Others spent the couple of thousand Reals they earned then returned to a life of hardship.

Through their voices, the documentary offers a critical take on the persistent correlation between race and poverty in Brazil.

Netflix has also recently produced several original TV series that reflect other complexities of Brazilian society. The cinematographer for “City of God” directed several episodes of “3%,” a dystopian thriller set on an island paradise whose elite inhabitants let in just a handful of people from the impoverished mainland each year.

“The Mechanism” is based on real events concerning a scandal involving government corruption and elicited angry reactions from political leaders in Brazil. And “Blood Pact” turns on a journalist who uses ethically questionable means to report on gang wars and corruption.

Fashion, Technology & Wealth

Then there’s the other side of Brazilian society, portrayed in Netflix’s “,” a frothy romantic comedy set against the fashionable upper echelons of Sao Paulo.

Katrina is a successful fashion vlogger with high-end sponsors and tons of followers. She’s young, gorgeous and always in character to fit her virtual image. When she meets Fernando, an IT nerd who vlogs about video games and attends Cosplay parties with his childhood buddies (oh, and lives with his mom), an unlikely romance arises.

It’s obvious to everyone their relationship is lopsided. Sure enough, his inertia eventually clashes with her dedication. Or, maybe, her image consciousness conflicts with his authenticity.

The script strikes an affable balance between emotion and humor, and the two lead actors are charismatic and believable enough to draw you in almost enough to ignore the predictable storyline.

“” also offers some healthy reminders for this image-driven age about maintaining sight of who you are, even when no one’s watching. The film feels like it could take place anywhere – and that’s the point.

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