When you’re naming a series about a drug dealer torn between two worlds, Joint Venture is a pretty good title. Maybe not as good as the original though: in Brazil it’s known as Pico da Neblina, which means “The Fog Mountain”. It’s a real-life mountain that’s the highest point in Brazil, making it both it a symbol of the characters aspirations and a pun on getting high… which, to be fair, is also one of their aspirations.
Forget the drug dealer clichés. He might hustle on the mean streets of São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, but twenty-nine year old Biriba (Luís Navarro) is a smart (and smartly-dressed) guy who takes care of his family and offers a solid, reliable service to his clientele. It might be the family business in a way – his late father was a hardened criminal, and his mother wishes he would follow down that dark path – but Biriba makes his money not through violence, but by doing a quality job selling a quality product.
Life is good, until Brazil’s National Congress votes to legalise marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes and he’s out of a job at the stroke of a pen. With no other useful skills to fall back on, it rapidly becomes clear that he only has two choices. The first doesn’t seem so bad: former client Vini (Daniel Furlan), suggests they team up and use Biriba’s knowledge and expertise to move into the newly legal side of things and make a (legal) killing.
The downside is that starting a new business costs money, and that’s something Vini and Biriba don’t have. Now that marijuana is legal, street level dealers like Biriba have rapidly been muscled out by big time legitimate players with connections and clout. Playing by the new rules is a lot harder than it first seemed, and without resources they don’t stand a chance.
His other choice lies on the other side of the law, with Biriba’s best friend and fellow drug dealer Salim (Henrique Santana). He’s currently reaping the rewards of staying in the illegal drug trade. For him, legalisation doesn’t solve anything, but it does create new opportunities to sell harder drugs – opportunities he wants to cut Biriba in on. That is, if you can call having to collect cocaine from a crooked cop an “opportunity”.
When Joint Venture was first conceived in 2015, it seemed likely that Brazil would follow much of the western world and legalise marijuana within a few years. Instead, the hard-right government of Jair Bolsonaro was voted in, and legalisation was tossed out alongside many other progressive policies. In Brazil, this new element of fantasy has worked in the series favour, helping to bring out the comedy in the storylines while still allowing it to highlight some of the darker issues around drugs and poverty.
Navarro and Santana are best friends in real life, and their bond is easy to see on the screen. They were both born and raised on the outskirts of São Paulo, and have said in interviews that the harsh reality of their characters was something they both observed first hand. Santana (who came to acting through lessons at his local church) told website El Pais that if he didn’t play Salim on the screen, he’d probably have ended up playing him in real life.
It’s also been groundbreaking in terms of its representation of Brazil’s Black population. While they’ve often been sidelined or overlooked in local productions, Navarro has been publicly outspoken about the series’ importance in giving Black Brazilians a voice on the screen. It’s been a similar process behind the screen, with director Fernando Meirelles saying they went out of their way to ensure the series accuracy, hiring consultants to help with the scripts (and relying on Santana’s real-world experience), while ensuring a diverse production team behind the camera.
There’s a definite hint of Breaking Bad (though here it’s more like Breaking Even) in Biriba’s predicament. As the only man in the family, and with his income helping to support his mother, his sister (Leilah Moreno) and her two girls, he can’t afford to pass up the money Salim’s offering. While getting involved in harder crime might provide the capital to set up his legal business, it also keeps him connected to his dark past. And as he soon discovers, not everyone there wants to see him succeed in his new life; going straight might lead him straight to the grave.
Joint Venture is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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