BBC’s latest endeavour to introduce colourful and exotic Brazil to Brits in now over. After four episodes on BBC1, Brazil with Michael Palin has come to an end, but you can still see it on BBC iPlayer. There are also books on Amazon.
Sadly Palin takes a highly superficial, inaccurate, foreign and barmy look at the fifth largest country and the sixth economy in the world. There is a widely-used expression in Brazilian Portuguese: “pra inglês ver”, which literally translates as “for the English to see”. It means “superficial, not to be heeded”. Michael Palin’s BBC documentary series has just lent extra weight to the expression. The show is glib, inaccurate and flooded with clichés. It is also too fragmented and anachronic, and the historical narrative is almost impossible to follow.
The invariably smiling and avuncular 69-year old is hardly the “globe-trotter” that he purports to be these days. He comfortably flies on airplanes, helicopters, or even takes a luxury-train in a country where passenger rail is virtually inexistent. He nods and agrees with everyone he meets, he giggles like teenager when confronted with anything vaguely un-British. He hardly utters a word in Portuguese, and does a catastrophic job at pronouncing the names of key places and people, such as “Dom João” and “Xingu”. He greets people with the Spanish “Hola” at least twice, in a country where people do not speak such language.
Palin does not engage with locals, it seems. Instead he interviews carefully-picked pundits who were likely selected at the pre-production stage. The conversations are often shallow and full of errors. I couldn’t help cringing when a tour guide in Maranhão described to Palin the different types of women in Brazil, each one named after a fruit or veggie according the shape of their buttocks. Such idiocy is not representative of Brazilian women, and yet this has now been broadcast to the entire planet. Once again, Palin simply chuckles and agrees. I think that Jordan or Emma Bunton could have done a better job at engaging with locals, confronting them or at least and making a couple of intelligent remarks.
While offering insights into some peculiar aspects of Brazilian life, such as the indigenous people of the Amazon, the Pomeranian community in the south and the Embraer factory in São Paulo state, Palin fails to show the very basic. We only see São Paulo – the largest city in South America – from above (except for a short take in the Liberdade district). All the rustle and bustle of a truly vibrant, cosmopolitan and yet chaotic metropolis are simply disregarded. The same applies to Rio: the celebrity and fashionistas stretches are largely ignored, the bohemian life is almost unseen.
There are also many errors. The Candomblé religion of Bahia is not a fusion of Catholicism and African religions – while created in Brazil, it does not have any Christian roots. Dique do Tororó in Salvador is not a lake; it is a dyke instead, just like the Portuguese name suggests. Gaby Amarantos did not christen the tecnobrega of Pará. The rhythm has existed for well over a decade, while the young singer has only released her first album this year. These are just a few of the various mistakes that I spotted.
Perhaps more worryingly, Palin does not delve into the most pressing woes of Brazil. He fails to explain that economic growth has not translated into better education, health and violence control. He visits the recently pacified favelas of Rio, giving the impression that violence is now a thing of the past. This reeks of sponsored-documentary making, as Rio urgently needs to improve its image for the World Cup and Olympics. Brazil has the highest number of murders in the world (nearly 40,000 homicides a year), far above any country in war. Sadly our reality is not very rosy.
The most deplorable moments are in the third episode, in Rio, when Palin disseminates the most repulsive Brazilian clichés. He repeatedly claims that Brazil is a highly sexually liberated country, and even visits a motel (the Brazilian sex hotels which he euphemistically calls “love hotels”). He browses through a menu of dildos and engages in highly suggestive talks with the motel “hostess” – wow, Brazilian women are so easy and available! He then attends the gay pride in Rio and ascertains that Brazil is very accepting of sexual minorities. If only!!! Compared to the UK, Brazil is a highly moralistic and sexually repressive country. Motels are in every corner not because people feel free to express their sexuality, but because they are too embarrassed to do it at home. Motels are representative of the country’s hypocritical stance towards sex. And it is very degrading for women to binge drink or to have a candid attitude towards sex – they will be quickly labelled a “puta”.
Regarding acceptance of sexual minorities, Brazil has the highest number of gay murders in the world. Two men are very likely to experience violence if they display public affection anywhere in Brazil, even in the few supposed gay areas in the large cities.
Brazil is not a safe, tropical paradise full of unreserved and sexually liberated people who speak Spanish and name women after fruit and veggie. The Brazil that Palin showed on the telly hardly challenges the shallow preconceptions that Brits have of Brazil – it perpetuates them instead.
I’m sorry Mr Palin, while I’m happy to see my homeland on BBC1, your take is just too foreign and partial for me. But that’s just me. Maybe I’m not Brazilian enough for Britain!!!