Prime Time Soap (2011) – taking the Portuguese title of A Novela Das 8 – is writer and director Odilon Rocha’s debut feature. Set in dictatorial Brazil, 1978, the film follows the lives of Amanda, a high-class prostitute (Vanessa Giácomo) and her maid, Dora (Claudia Ohana).
The two protagonists are introduced as Amanda accepts clients in her São Paulo apartment, begrudging their insistence on calling for companionship when her favourite telenovela Dancin’ Days is screening. For Amanda and other fans, the wildly popular serial – set in a famous Rio nightclub of the same name – is a welcome distraction from the realities of Brazil’s perilous political situation.
In a time of extreme political tension, the stakes are high for those who openly oppose the government.
Dora doesn’t believe in escapism. She has no interest in denying her country’s failings. Despite this, she dutifully fulfils her role as the impeccably dressed help, adding to the fantasy experience of Amanda’s cashed-up clientele. But, like the leading ladies of all good soaps, she is soon identified as a woman with a mysterious past.
One evening, an ostentatious man arrives at the apartment with a suitcase full of cash and an appetite for indulgence. He is there to celebrate a recent success, and Amanda has come highly recommended as a girl who loves to party. When the man suffers from an apparent drug overdose, the evening turns sour. Amanda and Dora soon discover he is a police officer and, fearing that they will be accused of involvement in the accident, they make a pact to flee to Rio de Janeiro. Brandão (Alexandre Nero) – a high-up police official with a vested interest in ferretting out those responsible for the demise of Amanda’s client – is soon hot on their trail.
While [Prime Time Soap] deals with complex and often very confronting subject matter, it is also idiosyncratically camp.
Just outside the capital, a group of activists enter hiding following a violent protest in which one of their members is fatally wounded. In a time of extreme political tension, the stakes are high for those who openly oppose the government. The police are on a mission to destroy those who stand in the way of the nation using whatever means necessary. As the group’s leader, Vincente (Otto Jr.) has sacrificed contact with his family and friends and spent years of his life on the run in the name of his political convictions.
It is in Rio that Amanda and Dora cross paths with Vincente, as they elude Brandão in a nail-biting game of cat and mouse. So too do they make a brush with João Paulo (Mateus Solano) – a disaffected diplomat coming to terms with his estrangement from home and culture – and Caio (Paulo Lontra), a teenage boy struggling to individuate as a gay man.
Elements of fantasy temper the film’s grim realities, leaving the impression that it is as much a cathartic exercise as a retrospective on Brazil’s painful past.
Prime Time Soap may be criticised for its flamboyance in examining aspects of Brazil’s turbulent history. While it deals with complex and often very confronting subject matter, it is also idiosyncratically camp.
Rocha’s re-imagination of 1978 Brazilian culture and politics is overlayed with the stylised hype of one of the country’s most popular obsessions, the telenovela. The film itself follows the plot structure of a soap opera, albeit at a slightly faster pace. The intrigue, melodrama and uncanny connections are all there. This is one of Prime Time Soap’s greatest strengths.
Elements of fantasy temper the film’s grim realities, leaving the impression that it is as much a cathartic exercise as a retrospective on Brazil’s painful past. However, the film’s end leaves some characters’ futures uncertain, perhaps most notably that of Dora. It becomes clear the plot’s reach for escapism extends only so far.
Prime Time Soap screened on Saturday 19 May at 9:00pm, at Melbourne’s ACMI cinemas. You can read more about the film on its official website.
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