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‘300’s’ Rodrigo Santoro Stars in Globo Novela ‘Velho Chico’

Luiz Fernando Carvalho (‘The King of the Cattle’) returns with a rural romantic saga packing political overtones

As it embraces TV’s digital revolution – VOD, shorter-form series – Brazil’s Globo, Latin America’s biggest TV group, is attempting not to lose the baby with the bathwater: Super Bowl-sized audiences every night of the year on its main Globo free-to-air channel, still driven by telenovelas.

Its latest play, “Velho Chico,” with big star-wattage, marks a new twist in its big novela lineup: the telenovela comeback of Luiz Fernando Carvalho (“The King of the Cattle”), nominated for an Intl. Emmy in 2014 for year-end special “Alexandre and Other Heroes” and one of Brazil’s most celebrated super-soap auteurs. Though Carvalho won a slew of prizes with his 2001 movie “To the Left of the Father,” he has spent much of his life battling to prove that Brazilian soaps can be a worthy successor of a great narrative tradition.

Bowing at 9 p.m. peak prime time on main channel Globo as Globo’s big new novela, “Velho Chico” stars Rodrigo Santoro, Hollywood’s highest-profile Brazilian actor after playing “300’s’” Xerxes, and co-starring in “Focus,” “Jane Got a Gun” and “Westworld.”

“Velho Chico” – slang for Brazil’s Sao Francisco River, one of Latin America’s largest, which separates Brazil’s South-East and North-East — returns Globo to a rural landscape after a decade of mostly urban stories set in Brazil’s biggest cities and aimed at capturing Brazil’s even more urban swelling middle classes.

Set in two time periods, the late 1960s and the present-day, “Velho Chico” stars Santoro as Afranio, the son of a big ranch-owner and local bigwig who marries beneath him – or so his mother thinks. His daughter, Maria Tereza (Camila Pitanga in adult life), also falls for Santo, the son of immigrants, has a child with him in secret, before forced into marriage with a young aspiring politician, Carlos Eduardo. But she never forgets Santo, the love of her life.

“Velho Chico” may read on paper like a stock multi-generation saga of feuding big hacienda families, illicit love and unrequited passion. Think again, said Carvalho, who brings a singular passion to his trade, and political undertones to “Velho Chico.”

Carvalho’s first short, “A Espera,” adapted an essay by Roland Barthes, one of the leading lights of French structuralism, was lensed by Walter Carvalho, cinematographer of the double Oscar-nominated “Central Station,” and won a Concha de Oro at San Sebastian. His first feature, 2001’s “To the Left of the Father,” making over a work by Raduan Nassar, was shot without a screenplay, the actors living together for four months.

Originated by Benedito Ruy Barbosa and Edmara Barbosa and written by Edmara Barbosa and Bruno Luperi, “ ‘Velho Chico’ is “a true classic, like the work of Shakespeare, and like any classic, opens up to news readings,” Carvalho told Variety.

Carvalho is shooting around 35 scenes a day. “Velho Chico” will have 170 episodes. But, he added: “Like any art, a telenovela depends how it’s made. Drama for me is one of the most noble genres in the history of art, on television and literature, though often scorned. Telenovela creators should feel proud to follow in the great central narrative tradition of Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, among others. It doesn’t matter if it’s art. What matters is the human dimension.”

Certainly, Carvalho doesn’t despise his trade. Since 2013, he has had his own warehouse at Globo’s Projac Studios, where he brings together the actors and craft departments – costumes, art direction, sets – normally spread out over the vast facility. Series’ cast and crew attended five seminars on rural realities, accents, body language. Actors read the first episodes to brainstorm ideas, with little imposition from Carvalho. Costumes are hand-stitched, aged manually. Local labor was hired for exterior shoots. Carvalho is working with percussionist Tadeu Campany to incorporate popular songs into the novela.

This may not be a complacent folksy vision of Brazilian rural life, however. The first part is set against the background of Brazil’s cotton plantations which “many times oppressed the people of Brazil’s North-East,” Carvalho said. In the second part, a new generation inherits the estates “versed in new technologies, seeking a balance with nature, a better and more just world.” Romantic intrigue mixes with a struggle to regenerate the Sao Francisco River region. The love story is framed in a social critique of Brazilian politics, “generalized negligence, the absence of policies creating a way forward for a country with so much natural wealth,” Carvalho said.

Will “Velho Chico” click with audiences? Calvaho delivered a realist miniseries adaptation of “The Maias,” a great 1888 work of Portugal’s Charles Dickens, Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós, which crashed-and-burned. The realist novel makeover garnered critical plaudits, and as low as a 9% audience.

Yet Carvalho’s “Renascer” was Brazil’s most-watched telenovela of the ’80s.

“Velho Chico” bows March 14 in Brazil.

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