A Symphony of Gunshots and Bird Calls

By Isabel Barnidge

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Image by Heiko Behn from Pixabay

Hands wide-open, welcoming the stranger or the visitor, Christ the Redeemer stands above the bustling city of Rio de Janeiro. With open arms and a slight tilt of his head, this colossal statue appears to be watching over the city and enveloping the skyscrapers and the tiny dots below him in an embrace. Despite the association of Rio de Janeiro with violence and extreme poverty, Christ the Redeemer exudes a peaceful and loving air. The contrast between the figure that towers above and the city that sits below presents the complexity of Brazilian culture and people. A city that continues to be painted as an oasis for crime, poverty, and drug trade, Rio de Janeiro struggles to invalidate the common outsider's perception of the city as "dangerous" or "corrupt" (Mariutti and Medeiros 122-125). On the contrary, it is also recognized internationally as a city of natural allure, beautiful people, and soccer (Mariutti and Medeiros 125). Nonetheless, Brazil's international reception has suffered as a result of its abundance of dichotomies: neglected favelas and pristine beaches, Carnival celebrations and random shootings, and spectacular biodiversity and decimated rainforests. With constant violent portrayals of Brazil on television, in movies, and in the news, people gain a very limited understanding of and exposure to Brazil. Unfortunately, these single Brazilian experiences shape an outsider's opinion and story of the country (Mariutti and Medeiros 119).

Literature and film have greatly impacted the foreign narration of Brazil. Those who are unfamiliar with the country may be first exposed to Brazilian culture and current events through literature, television, or movies. As a result, viewers or readers may assume that the generalizations, stereotypes, and fictional devices in these films or novels present a realistic depiction of the country. For example, in a study that questioned five British citizens' knowledge and interpretation of Brazilian culture, one participant cited the film City of God as "'show[ing] the reality of the country'" (Mariutti and Medeiros 126). By claiming that a roughly two hour film is able to present a truthful portrayal of the country, this participant highlights an international lack of knowledge of Brazil. This paper will contest the belief that a successful or well-known Brazilian novel or film can present a realistic and holistic image of Brazil. Further, it will propose that popular Brazilian films and literature glamorize Brazil's violent history and present and perpetuate the exoticization of the country's landscape and culture; thus, simplifying critical problems faced in Brazil and assigning a single narrative to one of the most racially, geographically, and culturally diverse countries in the world. In this paper, I will analyze how blockbuster films such as Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro and literature concerning Brazil misconstrue the country's violent reality and position Brazil as an established plot device or an un-evolving fictional character instead of a technologically and culturally developing nation.

In order to address the misconceptions and the commercialization of Brazilian culture in films and literature, it is beneficial to understand that the generalizations and portrayal of Brazil in different media often reinforce prior stereotypes of and misconceptions about the country. In a study conducted by Fabiana Gondim Mariutti and Mirna de Lima Medeiros1[1], five British participants had the task of listing and naming the first three things that they associate with Brazil (Mariutti and Medeiros 121). Out of the five participants, four mentioned football, two listed ideas along the lines of Brazilian women's beauty and the country's beauty standards, and two were quick to add Carnival to their lists (Mariutti and Medeiros 121-122). Later in the study, when requested to note three positive and negative words or ideas that they had when considering Brazil, all five mentioned crime, three included corruption or social inequality and two wrote down poverty (Mariutti and Medeiros 125). Participant [Z] went as far as to specify corruption as "'Tropa de Elite,' social inequality, and political short-sightedness" (Mariutti and Medeiros 125). While some of these stereotypes may be somewhat valid or representative of an aspect of Brazilian society, the homogeneity of their responses is concerning. Brazil, as a whole, struggles with crime and conflict; however, the fact that crime was the majority of the participants initial response suggests an oversaturation of images of Brazilian violence in internationally enjoyed films, news reports, books, and television series. Participant [Y]'s claim that "when I say to people that I want to visit Brazil, people tell me it is dangerous" (Mariutti and Medeiros 122) demonstrates how negative perceptions and social critiques prevent people from traveling and experiencing the country firsthand, further limiting their and, potentially, their country's access to and understanding of Brazil. Through analyzing Mariutti and Medeiros' study on British citizens' perception of Brazil, it is clear that there exist toxic stereotypes about Brazil's violence and culture that inhibit further exploration of its land and people. Additionally, this study suggests that it may be claimed that Brazilian literature, films, and news encourage and reinforce dangerous stereotypes for the international observer.

As Brazilian blockbusters have gained a larger international following and a greater presence in Brazilian society, these films have become more focused on aesthetics, commercial success, and action scenes or dramatic plots, promoting the stereotype that Brazil is a violent country. The Brazilian blockbuster has emerged as a separate entity from the American blockbuster. Unlike its American contemporary, the Brazilian blockbuster attempts to differentiate itself from other international films by seeking inspiration from and exposing Brazilian culture (Donoghue 538). It cannot be said that these films are created in hopes of only sharing Brazil with viewers, as their main goal is to "promote the Brazilian economy and cultural products as powerful players on the global stage" (Donoghue 538).While these films may attempt to present distinctively Brazilian cultural characteristics, their main goal is to fund the Brazilian economy and encourage foreign audiences to invest in Brazilian cultural products (Donoghue 538). Although the Brazilian blockbuster may be more focused on telling its country's story than the American blockbuster, these films often use the same editing techniques. Thus, the heart of the story can be overshadowed by the visual effects, action, and actors in the movie (Donoghue 545). In addition to this, like the United States, Brazilian directors, audiences, and actors have begun to equate numbers to the success of the blockbuster film (Donoghue 541). It can be said that a film is only considered a blockbuster if its numbers align with or surpass what is expected of an expensive and largely promoted movie (Donoghue 545-546). One of the many critics of the emergence of this number and financially-focused type of Brazilian film claims that this "obsession with numbers has saturated Brazilian trade papers and creative decision-making" (Donoghue 546). With less room for creativity, directors are forced to produce violent or action-packed films that have a goal of thrilling their Brazilian viewers instead of inviting them into a more complex and thoughtful world. The emergence of the Brazilian blockbuster has promoted a film culture in Brazil that is preoccupied with numbers, dramatic effects, and entertaining a hungry national audience (Donoghue 536). In focusing on these characteristics, many Brazilian films have buried their profound messages and social commentary under lights, cameras, and action.

In applying the characteristics of the Brazilian blockbuster to study Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro, it becomes clear that these blockbusters often glamorize violence in order to captivate the viewers' attentions and provide a reality that is hyperbolized enough that it appears fictitious and, thus, is enjoyable to watch. However, in a country that is often overlooked because of its violence and crime, this glamorization of violence further invites stereotyping and endorses Brazil's international narrative. With respect to the film Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro, Captain Nascimento's relationship with his son, Rafael, directs the conversation about and the reception of the violence in the film. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Rafael is at a jiu-jitsu tournament when he turns to his father and says "I'm not like you, who enjoys hitting people" (Tropa de Elite 2 00:32:26-00:33:59). Rafael, who splits his time between living with his stepfather, Diogo Fraga, a passionate peace advocate, and his father, Captain Nascimento, a strategic military leader, finds himself in the midst of the discussion on how to approach violence in Brazil. In a later scene in the film, Rafael is shown practicing jiu-jitsu with his father and reveals that he is "not afraid of [him]" (Tropa de Elite 2 01:18:07-01:21:38). This scene presents violence, or physical strength, as a unifying force in this father-son relationship.

Rafael, who as a child had declared that he is not like his father who "enjoys hitting people" (Tropa de Elite 2 00:32:26-00:33:59), is now seen as accepting his father's ways and even adopting them as his own. An innocent and young boy, Rafael's warming up to his father and the violence associated with him paints violence in a positive light. Thus, violence is depicted positively as a force that drives a relationship and distinguishes a man from a child.

In addition to glamorizing violence through its content, Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro's use of effects and editing choices present violence as exciting and invigorating. The film commences with a scene of Captain Nascimento leaving the hospital, where men are seen as following his every movement and planning an attack (Tropa de Elite 2). This scene, complete with suggesting music, a rapid car chase, an intense shootout and a dramatic voice-over, foreshadows what is yet to come and presents the film as the action-packed blockbuster that it hopes to be. The voice-over suggests that the violence in the film is necessary and "part of the job" by claiming that it was "nothing personal" (Tropa de Elite 2 00:02:11-00:02:13), that "society trained me for that" (Tropa de Elite 2 00:02:13-00:02:16), and that "mission given, partner, is mission accomplished" (Tropa de Elite 2 00:02:16-00:02:18).

The combination of the effects, the language, and the positioning of this scene makes it clear that it aims to capture the viewer's attention and to present Captain Nascimento, the man who narrates and is a part of this scene, as a hero or a man "doing his job." At the end of the movie, this scene is repeated but is given more context. In this revisited episode, Captain Nascimento is leaving the hospital after checking in on his son, who was tragically shot by a member of the militia. These same militia men are waiting outside of the hospital in hopes of shooting and killing Captain Nascimento. Although the beginning scene seems ominous, its revisitation displays Captain Nascimento's talent and ability to take out or defeat all of his enemies (Tropa de Elite 2 01:38:00-01:40:32). By positioning this scene between Captain Nascimento's visit to the hospital to see his son and his testimony in court, the director portrays Nascimento as a concerned, present, and protective father and an active Brazilian citizen. Thus, the violence in the intermediary scene is praised as a manner in which Captain Nascimento protects his family and his country. Based on the hospital scene and Captain Nascimento's relationship with his son Rafael, it can be concluded that Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro presents violence as a positive source that unites families, adds drama to the scene, and protects one's country from corruption.

Although, supporters of Brazilian blockbusters may argue that, as stated by Joseph Morgenstern, "'violent movies are an inevitable consequence of violent life'" (de Andrade Tosta 24) or that these films "[place Brazilians] 'in the presence of' violence … which leads them to reflect upon … everyday violence" (de Andrade Tosta 22), it cannot be disputed that blockbusters such as Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro oversimplify and exaggerate the truth. Thus, it is impossible to assess the value of the content in these film because they offer an overstated and glamorized version of reality. Additionally, while it may spur a bit of discussion in Brazil, the main conversations concerning a blockbuster will be focused on the film's numerical success (Donoghue 541); therefore, detracting attention from the movie's content to its box office achievements. Moreover, it would be another conversation entirely if these films criticized violence, but, many Brazilian films, such as Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro, present violent characters as heroes and make an argument for the value of violence in Brazilian society. Some argue that "the dichotomy [of] Nascimento/Fraga [allows the film to discuss] what either justifies or condemns the use of violence against crime" (de Andrade Tosta 28). However, if the portrayal of violence in the film is unrealistic or exaggerated, the inclusion of this violence appears to be more concerned in the aesthetic of the film than its content. In other words, the glamorization of violence in the film offers a fictitious representation and an oversimplification of its role in Brazilian society. It is also important to keep in mind that, while Brazilian audiences may be able to contextualize or expand on the idea of violence presented in this film, foreign audiences will continue to see Brazil "through the lens of violence" (de Andrade Tosta 30) and will view the violence in the film as "a marketing strategy to sell more films" (de Andrade Tosta 30). For the international viewer, violence in Brazilian film only helps to "produzir e fazer circular nossos próprios clichês" (Bentes 253) or reinforce the idea that "violência e a miséria são pontos de partida para uma situação de impotência e perplexidade e a imagem des favelas é pensada no contexto da globalização e de cultura de massas" (Bentes 247). Essentially, these violent Brazilian films and dramaticized portrayal of the favelas feed the mass culture's interest in Brazil. The use of violence in Brazilian films may inspire conversations on the best way to approach the country's violent climate; however, this conversation is likely to be hijacked by a discussion on the aesthetic and the surface value of these films. Additionally, these violent films strengthen and encourage the international stereotype of Brazil as a violent and uncontrolled place.

While Brazilian literature may not carry the same violent imagery as Brazilian blockbusters, these novels or stories exoticize Brazil in order to employ it as a plot device, reinforcing the stereotype that Brazil is an exotic and untouched land. Although many novels written by Brazilian authors have garnered success and acclaim in their homeland, there are few examples of Brazilian novels that have accumulated worldwide recognition (Caesar 365). Thus, there is a limited number of novels that speak about or involve Brazil. Consequently, American and European authors take advantage of Brazil's lack of presence in literature to mold it into the author's ideal character, setting, or message (Caesar 367). In other words, Brazil "is subject to the history of American needs or desires, and not Brazilian reality" (Caesar 367). International authors have used Brazil to fulfill their needs, and thus, Brazilian stereotypes are based on inaccurate and fictional representations of the country. For example, many American authors have depicted Brazil as a country where "racial harmony already exists" (Caesar 373). This portrayal of Brazil has promoted the idea that Brazil is a country without racism and segregation, when, in reality, the country is not free from these social injustices.

There is a tendency among American authors to reduce Brazil to its land, painting the country as "primal … because nature ultimately offers a virtually timeless experience of undifferentiation" (Caesar 376). Brazil, therefore, takes on an exotic role in which cities disappear and are replaced with a focus on the country's natural beauty. Nature's timelessness allows authors to transport their characters to an "earlier" and more "simple" era. Therefore, these authors can present Brazil as land free of the technologies that complicate and dominate today's stories and minds (Caesar 376). In a way, American authors equate Brazil to the Amazon and choose to ignore the booming metropolises where the majority of the Brazilian population lives. The article "A Paradigm of the Tropical: Brazil in Contemporary Anglo-American Science Fiction and Fantasy" goes as far as to claim that "for many [,] Brazil is an uncharted territory or a 'heart of darkness'" (Ginway 316). This reference to Conrad's famous Heart of Darkness suggests that Brazil is an unknown and unexplored land that will allow its discovers to "experience [a] transformation or even redemption, in what perhaps could be called a fantasy of mutual or multicultural salvation" (Ginway 317). The scarcely populated and undeveloped Brazil from these novels is the perfect environment or setting for the novel's characters to mature, reflect on their lives and experience personal growth (Ginway 317). By equating Brazil to the Amazon and its sparsely populated areas and depicting the country as the cumulation of American or foreign ideals, American authors have spread the stereotype that Brazil is an exotic, mysterious, and unattainable land.

Through analyzing the role of Brazilian blockbusters, the representation of Brazil in novels and stories, and the common stereotypes associated with the country, it is evident that there is a lack of international understanding and awareness of Brazil. Therefore, violence in Brazilian films must be approached with care. As exemplified in the film Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro, violence can take on a glamorous role in film and can be seen in a positive light. For example, Captain Nascimento's violent ways are recognized as necessary and he is admired for his use of violence in order to protect his country and his family. Sadly, this glamorization of violence in Brazilian film solidifies international viewer's perception of Brazil as a country that does not frown upon or attempt to reduce violence. On the other hand, a tasteful incorporation of violence in a Brazilian film may invite the viewers to reconsider its role in Brazilian society and discuss its detrimental effect on the quality of life in Brazil (Tosta 19). In order to dispel the stereotypes commonly associated with Brazil, it is essential that directors, authors and actors use their platforms to present Brazil in an unconventional and rarely depicted way. It is the responsibility of people around the world to read literature from Brazil and to watch films that may not be as internationally acclaimed or known. The best way to get an accurate picture of Brazil is to travel to the country, live with its people, and understand its history. A country cannot and should not be reduced to its stereotypes. In the words of the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Brazil is not only its violent cities or exotic and untouched countryside. To say this is to limit Brazil to one chapter in a volume of works. Brazilian media must acknowledge that their perpetuation of Brazilian stereotypes ensure that the "one story become[s] the only story." It is time that Brazilian literature and film escape the symphony of gunshots and bird calls and, instead, sing the praises of academic achievements, voice concerns about social justice issues, and hum along to the rhythm of Carnival.

[1] Conducted by Fabiana Gondim Mariutti and Mirna de Lima Medeiros, this study's goal was to observe the relationship between 'culture' and country brand image with respect to Brazil. The study was split into three parts and included five British participants who had little to no exposure to Brazilian culture. These participants were labeled as [K], [Y], [W], [X] and [Z], [Z] being the only participant who had traveled to Brazil. The first part of the study required the participants to list the first three things they thought of when considering Brazil. In the second part, participants were required to consider Brazil's brand image by ranking sixteen photos of Brazil in terms of which ones are believed to be the best representation of the country. The final part of the study requested the participants to name the first three positive and negative associations they had with Brazil.