Olympics Opening Ceremony Alternates Earnest Messages with a Party Vibe

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It’s easy to feel a little Olympics exhaustion before the Games even start, at least for those of us who don’t live for competitive sports. You’d have to be living under a rock to avoid all the hype, and even many rocks have endorsement deals.

And yet it was also hard not to be drawn in by the earnest and spectacularly colorful opening ceremony that took place in Rio Friday, which made excellent use of the cavernous Maracana Stadium. Perhaps the two most memorable things about the ceremony were the way that certain segments of the show filled up the entire center of the enormous space, and the use of the floor, which lit up in ways that added energy and depth to the story that was being told.

The story certainly jumped around, but director Fernando Mereilles didn’t shy away from the most difficult parts of Brazil’s past. He depicted slavery with evocative touches: Bricks on the feet of men and women in huddled rows, and sober music that vibrated with melancholy and pain.

It’s not easy to make graceful transitions when the entire world is watching and an entire stadium needs to be filled up with sound and light, but in the early going, Mereilles did a wonderful job of showing the formation of the rainforest with shimmering lights and glowing ropes that the performers sometimes knit into beautiful designs. The theme throughout was the interconnectedness of things, and that applied to climbers on the walls of makeshift favelas, pop singers past or present, and indigenous people making yellowish tracks through the green “forest” floor.

If part of the goal was to pique potential visitors’ interest in Brazil, it may have worked. Model Gisele Bundchen did her famous strut through the center of the stadium in a silver gown that conveyed effortless chic and urban cool, but she didn’t wear the reserved frown most models display on catwalks. She grinned with delight, and later could be seen exuberantly singing along during a party segment that looked like a live-action Dr. Seuss musical run happily amok.

One darker segment allegedly depicted the conflicts between haves and have-nots in Brazil, but it was hard to divine that theme from the near-collisions of men and women dressed in glittery Cousin Itt costumes. Much more clear and direct was a very earnest concluding film which incisively used graphics to show how world’s coastal cities will be flooded if global warming continues. You can’t necessarily accuse the Rio organizers of fiddling while Rome — and the rest of the world — burns.

But the Olympics have to adopt a pose of apolitical international brotherhood, which is the kind of theme that keeps the sponsors happy. It was lovely to know that each athletes would plant a seed as he or she entered the arena, but the opening ceremonies were strategically mute about what kind of entities have helped cause deforestation and other ecological problems, not just in Brazil but around the world. The sponsors on display in the all-too-frequent ad breaks would much rather you think about the upcoming gymnastics and Gisele’s impressive strut.