Everything I Know About Rio de Janeiro From Movies and TV

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Is it really all crime and Carnival all the time?

Movie and television depictions of cities can give us very general ideas about those places. Maybe even ignorant and stereotypical perceptions. With the Summer Olympic Games about to begin in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, here’s our very likely misguided understanding of the location based on what we’ve seen of it on the big and small screen.

When I think of Rio de Janeiro, I think of favelas. Images of violence from the slums of Brazil’s most famous city – but not the biggest city, which is surprising given its greater attention in pop culture – dominate the movies and TV series that have been produced there and distributed to the US. It’s similar to if you’d never been to Los Angeles and the only thing you knew of it was what you saw in films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society.

The thing is, most of these movies and shows concentrated on life in the favelas are worth seeing. There’s the amazing City of God, its spinoff City of Men, Elite Squad and its sequel, plus plenty of internationally circulated documentaries, including Bus 174 and Waste Land. It’s not always gangs and poverty porn, however. Rio’s slums have been featured in everything from Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus to the Hollywood animated feature Rio.

Those two movies also share another thing I think about when I think of Rio: Carnival. Although it is the biggest festival of carnival in the world, it also only lasts four days each year, but you’d think based on movie portrayals of the city that it’s always happening. I was shocked and relieved the climactic chase with the bank vault in Fast Five doesn’t wind up crashing through a random Carnival parade. The movie perpetuates the image of Rio as a gangster’s paradise, at least, and was criticized there for doing so.

Surely Rio has had a problem with crime and poverty, but it’s also a tourist destination, and so it would make sense for the city to push for more positive portrayals. Ironically, there is a good deal of tourism focused on the favelas, though especially in recent years leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, there’s also been an attempt to clean up the negative image and the real source of that reputation ahead of time.

When it comes to Rio’s tourist attractions, there’s the giant Christ the Redeemer statue that must be in any establishing shot or montage of the city, and there’s the beaches, and with them maybe boobs. My introduction to the place was, I confess, as a young boy with the 1984 movie Blame It on Rio, in which an American man has an affair with his friend’s daughter after seeing her walking on the sand topless. Apparently, though, toplessness is not actually a common practice there and is in fact mostly illegal.

Still, women look like they’re treated as a commodity in many films set in the “Marvelous City.” The 1933 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic Flying Down to Rio concludes with a stunt where a hotel straps (all white) dancing girls to airplanes to attract guests. In Disney’s Saludos Amigos and The Three Cabelleros, Donald Duck befriends a cigar-chomping, Rio-based parrot representing Brazil, who introduces him to the samba and then women to dance with – though Cabelleros is mostly set in Bahia. And plenty of more recent movies spotlight bikinis if not bare breasts.

If I ever visit Rio, I’ll also expect to hear either “Aquarela do Brasil” (aka “Brazil”) or Sergio Mendes’s “Mas Que Nada” blaring from speakers aligning the streets, as they’re basically an equivalent to establishing shots for setting up the location, the former more for old films and the Mendes for newer. And I expect it to be sunny and very hot all the time, with tropical birds everywhere, maybe even of the cartoon variety.

It’s the movies that start out in Rio and head elsewhere in Brazil that tend to be less cliche-ridden, meaning they’re less likely to give me an easy if not also wrong idea of the city. Walter Salles’s Central Station, for example, does feature poor people, but otherwise it doesn’t adhere to the typical sights and sounds of the area we’re used to seeing from Rio portrayals, before its paired-up characters make their way north to a very rural town in search of a young boy’s father. Much of its Rio setting is in the title train depot, and such transit hub locations tend to showcase a multitude of diverse peoples, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, etc.

There is hope that more unique films like Central Station, which was an Oscar nominee, could be the norm for Rio in the future. Local filmmakers are apparently trying to move away from the perception that Rio and Brazil are all about favelas and gangs. The question is whether they’ll get as much notice let alone be as popular up here as the hits of last decade. Crime stories are more widely appealing than heartwarming dramatic tales of old ladies and kids. So those same films could remain the ones we know best.

Even sadder than that, however, is that the most awful and most permeating image of Rio for anyone who has seen it is also the most ridiculously sexist and racially exoticized depiction of the city as a place for tourists to go and ogle at and have sex with foreign women during Carnival. Thanks for that, Arnold Schwarzenegger!

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.