At first glance, one would see Magnifica 70 as a show given something of the Mad Men treatment: meticulously recreated down to the last errant chest hair, the show is heavily stylised with men in period era-suits. That is where the similarities lie, however. Set in Brazil in the 1970s, under the authoritarian military government of the time, Magnifica 70 manages to avoid the style over substance pittfalls of so many of the shows that followed in Mad Men’s footsteps. This show is anything but empty period porn.
Amidst the clacking typewriters of an authoritarian bureaucracy, we’re introduced to Vicente who has made the switch from account to film censor thanks to a liberal heaping of nepotism. It’s his job to screen movies, trashy, pornographic affairs, to detect anti-government sentiment. But after one movie, and in particular its star, Dora Dumar, causes buried secrets to resurface, Vicente is quickly pulled into the very world he’s trying to shut down.
After demanding the film be banned for dubious reasons, Vicente, driven by his dark secrets and desire for Dora, finds himself through a series of circumstance behind the camera, promising that he can have the ban overturned if a new ending with very specific phrases are added to it. The cast and crew are happy to oblige; even if the new scene is nonsense, it makes more sense than the arbitrary decisions of government censors that will ruin them financially.
It’s this relationship between censorship and the meaning we project onto art, be it highbrow or low, that sits at the heart of Magnifica 70, shifting it beyond easy 'Mad Men meets Boogie Nights’ comparisons. This isn’t a show about the past, it just uses it to examine the present climate of outrage and censorship, drawing parallels between authoritarian government regimes and social media echo chambers pushing identity politics.
Rather than blaming censorship on some broad idea of the repressive regime, Magnifica 70 deliberately points the finger at the individual, in this case Vicente, a man employed to make things up in order to shut things down. He’d be post-truth, if he was dealing in something more absolute than art.
It’s this tense relationship between the individual and art that so much of the show revolves around. Regardless of artistic intent, the viewer will always project some of their own meaning onto a work. It’s malleable, able to be twisted to mean anything in a way statistics could only dream of. Today this idea exists in a wholly commercial form, as viewers are led to believe that they have some kind of shared authorship over media, and it’s this relationship Magnifica 70 speaks to.
This rampant individualism is the sad, present day that Magnifica 70 takes aim at. Today we see conservatives and progressives both crying out for art to be censored, not because the art is itself controversial, but because they’ve projected a personal and perceived offence onto it. Social media echo chambers have become the concerned citizens’ picket line of the 21st century. To escape them, Magnifica 70 dives into the past.
To drive its point home, Magnifica 70 is shot like a cheap movie, all hard zooms and occasionally wonky camera work. It’s deliberate, but never falls into the cliché of trying to pass itself off as a genuine artifact of the 1970s. It uses the past to hold a mirror up to the present, showing that the authoritarian censorship of art doesn’t necessarily need to be driven by government regimes.
That it manages to say all this while reveling in the lowbrow art of trash cinema is even more impressive. Magnifica 70 isn’t trying to be impenetrable; it’s subversive art hidden inside entertainment.
Magnifica 70 airs Thursday night on SBS at 11:30pm. The entire first season is available in full on SBS On Demand:
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