Much of what anyone might care to know about people dressing up in silly, often skimpy costumes and gyrating in a wildly public display is onscreen in “Samba!,” a look at the competitive parades of Carnival Week in Rio de Janeiro. Participants’ complete devotion to the music, dance and all-around spectacle of the event is examined with verve, pathos and humor by American documaker Adam Stepan, who lived in Rio for a decade. Wide-ranging examination of what happens when passion meets money could use trimming but brims with singular characters, and could sashay to specialized theatrical and ancillary biz.
In September, the six-month countdown to Carnival — the largest popular celebration in the world — begins, and Stepan has cameras in all the right places. It’s a tale of the haves and have-nots, competing on a no longer remotely level playing field.
Clovis Bornay, born in 1916, is the well-preserved winner of 247 luxury costume contests. Bear, the Gringo Carnival King, is a jovial, ultra-corpulent American man who finds himself lionized in Brazil. “Fat white men are the largest minority,” he jokes, clearly amazed that he gets to join the parade.
Samba enthusiasts, brought together by the United of the World Samba School, come from seemingly unlikely places such as Finland. The teeming favelas are a shock to foreign visitors, but the discipline of performing in perfect cadence is obviously a federating experience for people from all walks of life.
In the rickety, slum-like suburbs of northern Rio, spunky Dona Eulalia is still going strong, just shy of age 89. She founded the Imperio Serrano dance school whose poor, dark-skinned members once reigned with slow samba numbers, before the tide turned toward more frenetic beats some 40 years ago.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Imperio won parade contests held in the city streets while, on the other side of town, wealthy folks celebrated at the Opera House Ball. Vintage stills and newsreels show classy extravagance, with Clovis Bornay flamboyantly impersonating an extraordinary array of historical figures.
But the advent of television wreaked havoc on many traditions, and by the 1960s, Carnival had been transformed into a multimillion dollar business, with winners almost certainly rigged. By 1980, 10 of the top 14 samba schools were controlled by the same folks running Rio’s number rackets. Yet hope springs eternal, and scenes in which keyed-up members of rival dance clubs await the awards verdict feel like a matter of life and death.
The language of samba is allegorical, and the Carnival warehouses teem with ingenious floats-in-progress. A running joke follows a computer geek float whose designer’s ambitions far exceed their pragmatic possibilities.
Class divide is neatly summed up in a deadpan interview with obviously well-off Vera Royal, a socialite planning to dress in rags and masquerade as Queen of the Poor.