Reporter 451, 8 May 2000

Modern Languages enlist Latin legend

Screen goddess Carmen Miranda is the latest, if unlikely, addition to the University’s teaching resources. Low-budget Brazilian film comedies of the 1930s to ’50s have become a major focus for the University’s newest MA programme, in the School of Modern Languages & Cultures.

Ay-ay-ay-ay: Screen siren Carmen Miranda was one of the early superstars in Brazil's long history of musicals with social subtexts

Within weeks of its announcement, the new degree - the first of its kind in the UK - has attracted a flood of inquiries. Students will have the opportunity to study one of the least-researched eras in one of the world’s most popular cinema cultures.

Brazilian film producers in the mid-century churned out a series of low-budget musicals, long scorned by critics as kitschy trash - but now being rediscovered as coded social history. Lisa Shaw, a lecturer in Portuguese who will teach on the MA course (directed by Stephanie Dennison), is a pioneer in the study of the entertainment genre known as chanchada - described by the influential modern film-maker Glauber Rocha as ‘the cancer of Brazil’s cinema industry.’

Not so, says Dr Shaw, who believes the genre’s stock characters, creaky plots and musical interludes make these films ‘social documents as valid as anything in an archive.’

She is completing a book on the theme, reflecting her belief that the vibrant cultural life of the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking country is a vital object of study for those getting to grips with its language.

"The chanchada began in the Thirties as light musical comedies, modelled on Hollywood’s output but built around the musical themes of the Rio carnaval. In the Forties, the genre became increasingly sophisticated, and towards the end of its era it was often parodying rather than palely imitating Hollywood."

Typical plots featured interplays between the Brazilian élite and the impoverished masses, with a subtext of social conventions being undermined and tensions being resolved through the healing power of samba and carnivalesque humour.

The USA’s own cinema industry built its own stereotypical images of Brazil and Latin America generally, typified by the exotic diva Carmen Miranda. Although born in Portugal, she began her cinema career in Brazil and served Hollywood as the all-purpose song-and-dance siren representing the whole hemisphere ‘South of the Border’.

Dr Shaw’s first book explored the development of samba as a metaphor of social and political tensions in pre-war Brazil. Derived from the dance and music heritage of those descended from slaves, its lyrics reflected the low-life malandro subculture of the Rio slums. Eventually, it became ‘respectable’ as a uniquely Brazilian expression of national identity.

Further information is available in a more detailed account of the Chanchada

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