Vincente (Marcos Winter), the main character in Brazilian drama series Magnifica 70, doesn’t really like to watch — but it’s his job.
As the nation’s film censor under an authoritarian regime, he’s charged with viewing and assessing movies, primarily screening trashy content for anti-government sentiment. Then he comes across the talents of one particular pornographic actress, Dora Duma (Simone Spoladore), and discovers just how much pleasure he can find in his work. Soon head over heels for the glamorous star despite the fact that he’s already married, Vincente dives deeper into the world he’s supposed to be shutting down than he ever could have imagined.
Described as “Mad Men meets Boogie Nights” but proving even more intriguing than that mash-up promises, Magnifica 70 shines a light on the political climate of Sao Paolo in the 1970s. For viewers outside of Brazil, it opens a door into the South American country’s television output. Though the series is considered one of the nation’s best TV efforts to date, it builds upon a growing library of great television drama.
International audiences can be forgiven for equating Brazil’s small screen efforts with the telenovela, a format it helped pioneer. Indeed, alongside shows from Cuba and Mexico, 1951’s’s Sua vida me pertence remains one of the first examples of the genre, sparking a nation-wide fascination with the melodramatic serials. In the decades since, telenovelas continue to rank among the country’s most popular television programs. 2012’s Avenida Brasil, for example, not only broke existing records regarding commercial success, but attracted half of the viewing public, and caused the President at the time, Dilma Rousseff, to change her work schedule to watch the show.
It was in 1992 that another form of dramatic television attempts to mount a challenge against the telenovela for the eyes of the Brazilian masses, with mystery-thriller Você Decide relying upon a gimmick to elicit interest: viewer voting. Those at home called in to decide how each episode would end, sustaining enough intrigue to keep the interactive show running until 2000, spanning nine seasons and 323 episodes.
When global interest found its way towards Brazil’s film industry courtesy of four-time Academy Award-nominated 2002 feature City of God, Brazilian television also benefited. In fact, the movie’s spin-off television series City of Men, which aired from 2002 to 2005, still remains one of the country’s best-known TV shows beyond its borders. Created by the film’s director Fernando Meirelles and co-helmer Kátia Lund, the program spent more time in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (a local term for 'slum'), as drug dealers hustled, violence dictated daily routines, and teenagers tried to survive in an environment marked by gang activity and rampant poverty. Bringing the tale full circle, in 2007 a film version was released, also called City of Men, focusing on the series’ lead characters.
A return to the world of City of Men is expected later this year, with a new season of the show currently in production.
With international attention in Brazilian television drama piqued, the 2005 HBO-produced Mandrake endeavored emulate the success of City of Men by adapting a book character by author Rubem Fonseca as its basis. In making the leap from the page to the small screen, Mandrake followed its womanising criminal lawyer through his cases — and through the contrast of his wealthy clients and the more colourful and diverse aspects of Rio life.
Continuing the law and order trend, in 2009 the revenge-focused police effort A Lei e o Crime became the nation’s next big drama. Charting the tales of a drug dealer being chased by his cop brother-in-law and a new police chief driven to the job after her father’s murder, it once again took inspiration from Brazilian cinema. The hit underworld show, which ran for 23 episodes, is said to have stemmed from José Padilha’s 2007 Berlin Film Festival-winner Elite Squad.
Hot on the heels of Magnifica 70’s success, Netflix’s 3% is the latest program to showcase the country’s television output to the rest of the world — and give Brazilian-made TV its biggest platform to date. Arriving on the streaming platform at the end of 2016, the dystopian science fiction depicts a future in which society’s focus on wealth has been taken to a punitive extreme. With the world divided into two sections, those from the desolate, poverty-stricken realm can attempt to switch sides; however only the titular percentage traditionally succeed. A second season has already been announced, continuing to champion Brazilian drama to a broader audience.
The stunning first season of Magnifica 70 is currently streaming on SBS On Demand. Individual episodes also air on SBS Thursday nights at 10:55pm.