Rio, Zona Norte & Samba’s Sordid History

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Rio, Zona Norte (1957) is a sort of spiritual sequel to Rio, 40 Graus. Set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the film is told through a series of flashbacks after Espirito, a talented Black samba writer suffers a fatal injury after falling from a train. Espirito begins as a hopeful samba star and ends up bogged down by the corrupt and racist world of Brazil’s elite musicians.

After the critical success of Rio, 40 Graus, director Nelson Pereira dos Santos was one of the most interesting filmmakers to look out for in Brazil. And he was still not done taking down the institutions of Brazilian society and cinema. Rio, Zona Norte particularly goes after the chanchada, a film genre native to Brazil. Chanchadas had their heyday between the 1930s and 50s. They were musical comedies with elements of crime and science fiction but were never critical darlings. The name chanchada refers to what critics considered the vulgar spectacle of the genre. Still, they were always box office successes. As journalist Sergio Augusto pointed out, “With its almost always naive, sometimes malicious and even spicy humor, the chanchada has established itself as entertainment for the people.” 

Carmen Miranda, who got her start in Chanchadas

Despite the influence of American cinema, the chanchadas used to be essentially Brazilian, dealing with everyday problems and making humor in an easy-to-understand language. The structure of the genre was simple: a young man and woman get into trouble; the comic tries to protect them; the villain strikes and is subsequently defeated. However, this binary view of Brazilian society needed to be broken down and examined. Rio, Zona Norte may have seemed like a chanchada to a Brazilian audience because of its samba soundtrack as well as its star, Grande Othelo, a comedic star of the genre, but it presented a much different structure.

Most notably, Pereira dos Santos inserted neorealist messages into the chanchada setting, making a genre of its own. Unlike other neorealist films, this one focused on the misery of the poor as well as the commodification of their own popular culture. It’s a unique film that may share the same setting as his previous film but carries with it a very different tone. On the whole, Rio, 40 Graus is a film about how tragedy and joy exist at the same intensity and time and define Brazilian identity. Rio, Zona Norte carries with it the specter of death and does not see the battle between joy and tragedy as an equilibrium but sees violence and tragedy as a shadow that overcomes good.

Rio, Zona Norte

This becomes clear within the first shot of the movie. Similar to Rio, Zona Norte, it starts with a tracking shot of Rio that ends in the favela. It seems innocuous enough until we find out what it was. At the end of the movie, we realize that that was a POV shot of Espirito watching the city from the train he would fall off of and die. A seemingly normal shot suddenly becomes violent and tragic. The violence is cemented even further in the first dance scene. It’s joyful and playful until a man threatens a woman with a knife unexpectedly. The violence and futility of fighting against it is particularly personified in Espirito’s relationship with his son, who finds himself swept up in the criminal underworld. After a long struggle to save his son, the conflict leads to a climax in which Espirito is attacked by his son’s gang, and his son is subsequently killed by them for trying to protect his father. Even the pure of heart face unceremonious downfalls.

Though Zona Norte is darker than 40 Graus, the films still share a lot in common, particularly in how they frame racism as a class struggle and take a major hit at the myth of racial democracy. Coined during the Estado Novo by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the term was used to describe racial relations in the country. It denotes the belief that Brazil escaped racism due to miscegenation and social mobility. In other words, there are no racial borders in the country. All Brazilians are the same. The failures of the so-called racial democracy are expressed through the journey Espirito takes with the first song he performs in the film. Espirito sings. “I hit on her, but still /  she didn’t even care / and told me to go to school / to learn my ABCs / I replied / morena, come and teach me / morena, come over here.” The morena character is elusive and also the perfect picture of racial democracy as a beautiful mixed-race woman.

Rio, Zona Norte

The journey towards achieving success is all tied into this song and this symbol. These very words that he wrote appear later on in the film playing on the radio. It seems great, however, they are performed without his credit. The sympathetic white Samba enthusiasts have stolen from him and propagated a racist and classist myth along the way. The only solace Espirito finds from the song is when his friends sing it with him. This is the only gesture of recognition he can get because it is from his working-class friends. Just as the working class black people are allies the bourgeois white people are all antagonistic. Even in the flash-forwards where Espirito is at his most vulnerable after falling off a train, most white people continue to exploit him. They poetically strip him of his things which only contain samba lyrics and slow ambulances and scary-looking doctors await him at the hospital.

The ending is where we see the most ambivalence to this push and pull. After being taken advantage of for the last time, Espirito vows never to let it happen again. He solemnly gets on a train, gets inspired, and writes a song with lyrics “It’s my samba and Brazil’s too.” He is giving it to the world but still owns it. Everything is looking up when he falls from the train leaving the audience to feel one of two things: despair that his song is lost forever or joy that this song cannot be stolen. It’s one or the other. This event is followed by another equally ambivalent one. When Moacyr, Espirito’s so-called friend, comes to the hospital and finds him dead, he asks Espirito’s friend if anybody knows his Sambas. The friend nods and again we can either feel one of two things: joy that his music will live on or despair that he will be exploited even in death. 

Considering this dreary “choose your own adventure” kind of ending, it’s no wonder the film was not as critically acclaimed as 40 Graus. Some criticisms are valid. Zona Norte movies at a slower pace than 40 Graus, but the hopelessness of this Brazilian portrait may have been hard to swallow. 40 Graus and Zone Norte may share the same ending shot, a slow pan over the city center at night from the favelas, but it conveys a very different tone. Rio, Zone Norte says more about the ignorance and violence in Brazilian identity and the futile nature of their pain. Sometimes this pain can’t even be turned into art and if it is, you might want to question who brought it to you.

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