Pantanal is pop, Pantanal is agro, but that's not all

Eugênio pronounces sonorous and precise words to portray Zé's father – and Zé gets upset. In his ears, that story in Eugênio's voice makes allusions that hurt the figure of his idolized father. Her heart clenches. For Zé, the father is an untouchable being, who exists on a plane above mortals. Yes, his father left life, but he never entered death. Dedicated son, he conceives the father (that's right, the son conceives the father) as a totem that moves beyond sight, capable of acting – invisible, but real – on the fate of his descendants. Taken by such great devotion, Zé doesn't understand Eugênio's words and repels them, aggressive and sullen. Afterwards, he will have time to realize that, in the name of his filial and vain zeal, he has rejected nothing less than the truth – but, at the first moment, his impulse is to reject what does not sit well with him.

We are in Pantanal, the new primetime telenovela from Globo Television Network. The scene described in the paragraph above aired on Tuesday. Eugênio, the guitar player played by Almir Sater, sings a beautiful moda that talks about an old farmhand who disappeared without a trace. Zé Leôncio (Renato Góes), son of a farmhand named Juventino, who disappeared like a shadow through this big world of marruás, is offended when he hears the song. He hates the feeling of seeing his father in a narrative that escapes his heir's control. Sullen, he stands up suddenly and withdraws from the viola circle.

Later, a few scenes later, Zé will regret his own harshness. Moved, he will return to the singer, to whom he will ask for an encore. At that time, the two perform alone, aboard a moored chalana. The chords fill the flooded vastness, the camera flies away (ah, the drones) and the melodrama fulfills its cycle. The commercial break approaches. Everything looks good, everything is calm and the sounds tune in.

Something there, however, continues to scratch people's eyes and ears. In the new fictional plot of Globe, there are signs that do not reconcile at all. It is not just the father figure who becomes the object of dispute between the guitar player's singing and the mystifying veneration of the son; other signs, many others, do not find terms of harmonious coexistence. Thus, with its scenarios set in a tourist paradise of tuiuiús, anacondas, jaguars, alligators and heartthrobs that pretend to play a garrison, Pantanal presents us, voluntarily or not, with a plot of war between signs. In the crevices of this rubbed signage, we glimpse the raw wounds of a divided Brazil, which no longer recognizes itself in its own history.

Pantanal it's a remake. Its first version aired 32 years ago, by the extinct TV Headline, an instant and consistent success. Written by Benedito Ruy Barbosa and directed by Jayme Monjardim, the plot enraptured the audience with its hippie soul. Its message was half ecological, half cricket, half poncho-and-conga, half mushroom tea. In 1990, the Pantanal region was an idyllic place, crossed by the old train that dragged itself towards Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Now, in 2022, the stereotypes have been reversed. The Pantanal is a polluted swamp chewed up by agribusiness. The cowboy archetype, which once evoked harmony with nature (the cowboy was to the bush more or less as the surfer is to the sea), today represents the most bloodthirsty and mechanized livestock. The pedestrian of 2022 goes aboard pickup trucks that skid in the pasture spewing diesel oil; his gang are the phalanxes crowded in Texan boots, who hate environmentalists and vote for Jair Bolsonaro. In 1990, the protagonists of Pantanal were tacitly left-wing, even though they were landowners. Now, the same protagonists run the very considerable risk of emerging as right-wing icons, albeit apolitical ones.

When Zé Leôncio gets angry with Eugênio and turns his back on him, the new meaning of the term “Pantanal” comes into conflict with the previous one. Almir Sater is a surviving actor; was in the pioneering cast of TV Headline and now reappears as a hybrid of an exquisite instrumentalist and a second-rate spiritual guide, with self-help lines. Renato Góes, who plays Zé Leôncio, is his opposite: no matter how hard he tries, he doesn't know how to hear anything other than his own echo.

The Pantanal changed direction, just like Santos and Acapulco did. The image of public figures is also turned upside down, as seen with Volodymyr Zelensky. Elected president of Ukraine in 2019, the former comedian was snubbed as if he were nothing more than a clown, and now he is applauded around the world as a wise and courageous statesman. Also the most prosaic words – mainly them – undergo drastic semantic alterations. The French sociologist and linguist Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) researched these metamorphoses and demonstrated that “historical and social facts act and react to transform the meaning of words”.

What historical changes will be behind the transformations of the Pantanal sign? What changes will come? A soap opera is just a soap opera, you won't be able to respond, but speeches are already in open convulsion in this country.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of The superindustry of the imaginary (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper The state of Sao Paulo.


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