City of God
The interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer, didn’t win the bid to host the Olympic games in Rio or organise the event. But he could regard the opening ceremony as a personal triumph. All over Rio last Friday there were protests against his leadership, which many are calling the result of a coup d’état. The words ‘Fora Temer’ – ‘Temer Out’ – could be seen on the beach, outside the Maracanã Stadium, painted on people’s bottoms. But the billions of viewers who tuned in to watch the beginning of the Olympics did not see this outcry, and the booing which accompanied the president's official opening of the games wasn’t obvious over the television.
The impeached president, Dilma Rousseff, and her predecessor, Lula da Silva, who was in charge when the city won the Olympics, were nowhere to be seen. Instead it was Temer, leaning back, cross-legged in a sharp grey suit among other international leaders, who presided over the national anthem led by the Samba superstar Paulinho da Viola, over Gisele Bündchen's catwalk, and overjoyous crowds singing along to Jorge Ben Jor's rendition of his famous song, ‘País Tropical’, which details how great it is to live in such a beautiful country as Brazil.
It is unsurprising that the creative director of the ceremony, Fernando Meirelles, would want to gloss over the country's troubles. Representations of Brazil's history of slavery and of Rio's favelas were stylised and idealised, even though Meirelles directed City of God, the 2002 film based on Paulo Lins’s searing account of the racism, violence and poverty which often characterise life in a favela. But for so many of the country's most famous stars to perform as if it were business as usual looked like a tacit acceptance by the artistic establishment of a new status quo, despite the serious corruption and anti-democracy charges that Temer and his team now face.
There was one small symbol of protest in the ceremony, however, right at the end, when the actors Fernanda Montenegro and Judi Dench read from a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, ‘A Flor e a Náusea’. The verses, about a flower growing in a polluted city, were part of the event’s ecologically themed finale. But the poem is about political as much as environmental distress. The opening verses, which were left out last Friday but have been studied in Brazilian schools for years, describe a working-class man sickened by the society around him. He sees ‘grimy eyes’ (‘olhos sujos’) looking down on him from above and knows 'the time of full justice has not arrived’ (‘o tempo não chegou de completa justiça’). The narrator is disillusioned with his country and his city. He realises that nothing, whatever the newspapers say, has changed for the better. 'Forty years,' he says, 'and not one problem solved' (‘Quarenta anos e nenhum problema/resolvido’). It’s a sentiment shared by many Brazilians today.
Drummond was born in 1902. ‘A Flor e a Náusea’ was written during the Estado Novo era of 1937-45. The president, Getúlio Vargas, had launched a coup d'état, shut down Congress and turned the country into a dictatorship. ‘The poem was meant as a protest against this,’ the poet Noemi Jaffe told me. ‘It was used in a different context in the opening ceremony,’ the writer and editor Ana Rüsche said, ‘but in an era of political uncertainty in Brazil, with controversies over the legitimacy of the government, the poem works very well.’
Drummond is often described as Brazil's best-loved poet. His verses have appeared on banknotes. There’s a statue of him on Copacabana Beach (above), facing not towards the sea, as some locals would like, but inland – the critic Angel Gúrria says this is more fitting. The mood of ‘A Flor e a Náusea’ is typical of Drummond’s poetry, with its combination of hopelessness and romanticism, acceptance and repulsion.
Brazil's turmoil has not receded because of the games. A man holding a 'Temer Out' sign was ejected from an archery event by three soldiers. Nine spectators whose T-shirts spelled out ‘Fora Temer’ were removed from a football match in Belo Horizonte. The federal judge João Augusto Carneiro Araújo issued an injunction against demonstrators being removed for waving signs or chanting. Whether the strained atmosphere is to blame or not, Brazilian athletes have already suffered terrible humiliation. The national football team was booed by its supporters after a 0-0 draw with Iraq.
But, as in ‘A Flor e a Náusea’, there have been small signs of hope breaking through. For the Carioca poet Mariano Marovatto, the 'flower' of the games is the judo champion Rafaela Silva, who won Brazil's first gold medal on Monday. ‘Despite the corrupt, decrepit white men that have stolen the government there is this flower, Rafaela, a woman, black and gay, from the famous City of God favela,’ Marovatto said. ‘The City of God is no longer Fernando Meirelles's business – it's Rafaela's from now on.’