“Rio 40 Graus” opens with an aerial shot of Rio de Janeiro, pushing past the Corcovado and toward its favelas, the slums inhabited by its (much) less prosperous citizens, and director Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s film closes with a shot inside the favelas, in the midst of a samba, before the camera rises up and out of the slums, to take in the whole of glittering Rio itself. These bookend shots remind us that despite the efforts by so many to keep the favelas out of view, or, at least, keep the favelas out of view in their own minds, they remain right there, on the edge perhaps, but part of the same city nonetheless. Inhabitants of the favela live in Rio just like the affluent who chill on Copacabana, just like the local politicians who scheme and cajole, directly in plain view of the good ol’ Statue of Christ. That’s not to suggest that “Rio 40 Graus” is enraged with its titular city. There is anger, yes, and it percolates and it occasionally bubbles over, but there is love too, a love for Rio, and for Brazil, and its culture. So much, in fact, that it wants to use this cinematic platform as a means to argue how that culture belongs to all.
The film opens inside the favela where five young boys, all peanut sellers, depart their homes, wading into Rio, peddling their products. Each boy is plagued by his own problems, whether it’s a once-great trombonist for a father who has devolved into destitution and alcoholism or a gravely ill mother. These bits of characters are not, mind you, introduced to engender dramatic payoffs, but to set mood. “Rio 40 Graus” is very much of the neo-realist movement, a quasi-documentary, though one often overlaid with music, typically more uplifting or sweet than ominous. Life may be hard, but the spirit of the people here remains intact. That smells suspiciously of sentimentality, sure, but Santos never panders, never comes close, instead allowing his film to intrinsically argue that life itself automatically allows for such duality.
As they journey into Rio, the youngest boy, in a splendidly jarring moment that seems to transition like a magic trick, winds up in the green of the forest, with animals all around, as if he has been teleported to the Amazon. It is the city zoo he has wound up in, but Santos doesn’t clue us into that right away, preferring instead to revel in the boy’s eyes, alive with wonder, as he drinks in the sights and sounds all around him. Alas, his palpable joy is stripped in an instant when a security guard boots the boy before immediately ushering other kids, kids very much not of the favela, right on in, the class divide rendered starkly, painfully. And that’s how “Rio 40 Graus” will go, following these boys from place to place, even as it occasionally takes time for vignettes, or even side stories, like the melodrama of a pregnant young woman and the father-to-be wrestling with whether or not to get married. Even if these scenes are shot in the same plainspoken style, their mood is more befitting of a soap opera, as is the subplot of a local politician’s daughter being fixed up with a sinewy deputy minister at the famed Statue of Christ. There, in a laugh out loud moment, the deputy conspicuously checks out the young lady’s backside, indifferent to his towering Redeemer.
This journey to the famed Statue keeping watch on Rio is indicative of the overall film, moving from famed locale to famed locale, Sugar Loaf Mountain to Copacabana and beyond. This is not, however, a mere travelogue. Each of these places represents an odd kind of democratic meeting ground, where the poor and the rich are allowed to intermingle, even if the rich laugh obliviously, or turn their nose up, at the poor, and the poor know they don’t really belong there anyway. Of all the locales, the famed Maracanã stadium becomes the most crucial, with a championship game between the home team and another team contested. If anything stands for everyone, it is Brazilian futbol, though even here, we quickly learn, the higher-ups will always hold more sway. The team’s beloved best player is sidelined by the whims of the owner who is determined to thrust a new, inexperienced if promising player into the spotlight. Eventually the owner is proved right in his seemingly idiotic decision, a darkly comic reminder that good fortune falls upward toward those in power, allowing them to consolidate it. That consolidation of power is also evinced in a local gangster who wants control of the peanut racket, leading him to try and chase down one of the favela youths infringing on his territory, which ends tragically, abruptly, so much so that you might not believe it just happened. But it did, and the world keeps turning, indifferent. Santos juxtaposes this moment with a big goal at the Maracanã, rendering the thunderous cheers spectacularly hollow.
Despite the melancholy of this moment, and of others, the film ends on a festive note, essentially transforming into a musical as it returns to the favela where the locals, gearing up for the Brazil Carnival, erupt into a samba. It is not a moment that forgets what came before, but that remembers despite the power and wealth tipping toward those outside favela, its dwellers, despite all their problems, retain the right to Brazil’s culture and traditions. A little earlier, the trombonist father explains to a favela visitor that “Everybody heard just my trombone when my band played.” It’s a great line, and he underscores it by ignoring the drink and momentarily unwielding a few notes on his chosen instrument. But it’s a line that also echoed in my head as the movie concluded, where as everyone sang and danced the samba, you could, for a few moments, only see Rio for the favela.