by Greta Browne
For Christmas I was gifted the autobiography of Fernanda Montenegro, a 90-year-old Brazilian actress who became known worldwide for her role in the movie Central Station, as the tough old lady from Rio who took a young orphan boy to find his father in the interior of the country.
Montenegro’s autobiography provides a vivid comparison between the Brazil of the mid-20th century and the current Brazil of Bolsonaro. Born in 1929, Fernanda Montenegro began her acting life as a teenage radio presenter in her working class neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Her two sets of grandparents were immigrants from Portugal and Sardenha, come to Brazil in the nineteenth century for the opportunities of work on farms, mining projects, and specialized construction. Her paternal grandfather, for example, was an expert stucco worker from Italy.
I was interested in Fernanda’s description of life in the 30’s under the 15-year rule of President Getulio Vargas. She defines him as a fascist for his ruthless military actions in rooting out all signs of communism. However, his social programs provided Brazil with superior new departments of health, education and culture, and he actively supported labor, blacks and women. She benefited directly from high quality public education, with French and Latin in middle school, and from the official support of cultural programs.
Montenegro progressed over the years from radio broadcasting of music shows and dramatic presentations, to live theatre performances, and then to television skits and plays in the early years of TV. Eventually she landed roles in cinematic productions as early as 1965. She continued performing in theatre and cinema right up through 2019, including Simone de Beauvoir monologues in working class venues despite being discouraged by those who thought the material was too dense and difficult for the less educated population. She comments on one woman who during the post-show discussion said the “that woman [Beauvoir] was weak, too dependent on that man [Sartre],” and another who proclaimed “I’m just like her.”
Montenegro lived through many regime changes — Vargas’s popular dictatorship (1930–45), several elected presidencies, the military dictatorship (1964–84), the return to direct elections, several more presidencies, two impeachments, and in 2019 the election of the current far-right-wing anomaly. I lived in Brazil as a child and remember much of what she describes, especially the good quality of education and the excellent music, art, and theater.
As a young adult I also remember the fear during the military dictatorship and the censoring of music and the written word. Montenegro describes theater productions that were censored piecemeal and others that were banned outright, causing severe financial stress to the companies. In 1981 I was asked to leave an acquaintance’s apartment, where I was staying temporarily with my three children, because I hung a poster of Che Guevara on the wall.
Education and culture in current Brazil reflect the lack of funding from the government at every level as well as the deleterious effects of decades of television and more recently of cell phones, both of which have taken the place of newspapers and books. President Bolsonaro, himself a poorly educated non-reader, believes that reading creates bad citizens and that reporters should be eliminated. Progressive journalists that I continue to read, in newspapers such as the Correio Braziliense, the major newspaper of Brasília, describe the deliberate dumbing down of the population by neo-liberal administrations, first that of Temer, the vice-president who took over when leftist president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and now Bolsonaro’s government. There is the belief among leftists and progressives here that Jair Bolsonaro is the puppet of US-led neo-liberal operatives who are undermining democracy throughout Latin America, as they have done intermittently for a hundred years. Montenegro decries in her book the pervasive meddling of American operatives in Brazil after the Second World War.
Northern-hemisphere vultures who see the Southern hemisphere as rich in raw materials – minerals, lumber, oil, arable land, and pasture for cattle – seek to ensure that southern countries remain open to the market forces that enrich the major corporations. Both governments and the people south of the equator can be influenced – manipulated – to serve the market interests of the wealthy. Undermining education and using the virtual media to influence public opinion weaken support for independent and creative endeavors. True art does not serve the interests of the powerful but the masses have been taught to be spectators of mass shows rather than creators or appreciators of culture. It is a crime against humanity to cripple people in this manner.
As I finish up this article the news appears on the media in Brazil and is echoed around the world: “Brazil’s culture secretary, Roberto Alvim has been fired after he appeared to paraphrase the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in an online video to promote a national arts prize.” (The Guardian, Jan. 17, 2020) Alvim’s online speech indeed includes a paragraph that is almost identical to a 1933 speech by Goebbels, in which he says that art in Germany will be heroic and nationalistic. The good news is that the outcry in Brazil’s Congress and in the legal community, as well as from abroad, was so strong that President Bolsonaro had to fire Secretary Alvim.
But this government is intent on reining in the bold and innovative art that has been typical of Brazil. Recently an international Film Expo in Rio saw its public funding slashed. “The consensus is that the destruction of the Brazilian film industry is in full joyful swing by this far-right government,” Kleber Mendonça Filho, one of Brazil’s most celebrated directors, wrote on Facebook last week.” (The Guardian, Dec 9, 2019) I imagine the intense disappointment of 90-year old film star Fernanda Montenegro, who participated in the development of the film industry here, and also recalls the fascist positions of President Getulio Vargas 80 years ago.
Montenegro represents almost a century of Brazil’s struggle to be a democracy, and her story points to the gifts of artists as custodians of the country’s culture and freedom. As her presence fades, younger Brazilian artists continue the struggle, such as filmmaker Petra Costa, whose documentary The Edge of Democracy has just been nominated for an Oscar. The film covers the political events in Brazil from the first election of Lula, a highpoint of democracy, to the election of Bolsonaro, cause of despair for Petra Costa. Even as President Bolsnaro decries her film as crap, Costa is a spokesperson for progressive Brazilians. (See the interview on the Laura Flanders Show: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhV1BKbBxjg.)
Greta Browne and her husband, Guy Gray, are former residents of the Lehigh Valley who now live on a farm in the central highlands of Brazil, about 70 miles west of Brasilia.
Editor’s note: The author mentions the military dictatorship from 1961–1964 and the Brazilian leftists’ “belief” that Bolsonaro is a puppet of US neoliberals.There is ample evidence of the US involvement in the creation of each of those governments.