This essay examines the romantic comedies S.O.S. mulheres ao mar (2014) and Meu passado me condena (2013), which repeat several tropes of the chanchada—a film comedy genre with its beginnings in early twentieth-century Brazil. Both offer a negotiation of changing class status in Brazil during a period of increasing international attention and economic growth (2002 to 2014). Although these films promote new notions of Brazilian cultural identity, they also sustain established hierarchies (of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality) in favor of promoting neoliberal values and ways of being. In particular they promote consumerism, self-improvement, and the cultivation of personal happiness. Unlike Brazilian popular comedy of the mid-twentieth century, these films do not offer self-deprecating critiques of modernity or the failings of capitalism. Rather, S.O.S. mulheres ao mar and Meu passado me condena celebrate and promote the idea of a new emergent Brazil, making gender and sexuality frameworks for thinking about contemporary Brazilian cultural identity.
Buoyed by the trade winds of consistent sequel, spin-off, and comedy profits, the film My Past Condemns Me (Meu passado me condena, 2013) sailed onto Brazilian cinema screens in 2013.1 Its notable box office success was followed a year later by S.O.S. Women Overboard (S.O.S. mulheres ao mar, 2014). Both works are romantic comedies set on cruise ships and feature recognizable Brazilian stars from popular television and cinema. These films are not only emblematic of key shifts in the contemporary Brazilian film industry, but they adapt elements of past commercial trends in Brazilian popular cinema. In this essay, I argue that these contemporary romantic comedies, which repeat several tropes of the chanchada—a film comedy genre with its beginnings in early twentieth-century Brazil—offer a negotiation of changing class status in Brazil during a period of increasing international attention and economic growth (2002 to 2014). Although they promote new notions of Brazilian cultural identity, they also sustain established hierarchies (of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality) in favor of promoting neoliberal values and ways of being. In particular they promote consumerism, self-improvement, and the cultivation of personal happiness. Unlike Brazilian popular comedies of the mid-twentieth century, they do not offer self-deprecating critiques of modernity or the failings of capitalism. Rather, S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me celebrate and promote the idea of a new, emergent Brazil, making gender and sexuality frameworks for thinking about contemporary Brazilian cultural identity.
If the films are emblematic of new trends in the Brazilian film industry, they are so partly because the directors, Júlia Rezende (My Past Condemns Me) and Cris D'Amato (S.O.S. Women Overboard), have engaged fully in the new commercial filmmaking landscape that emerged in the mid-1990s. In broad strokes, filmmaking in Brazil came to a near standstill owing to the dismantling of Embrafilme (the national film agency) under the neoliberal Fernando Collor administration (1990–92). Filmmakers struggled but managed to take advantage of new funding schemes to support their work, leading to the retomada (rebirth) of Brazilian cinema.2 In 1998, the dominant television network in Brazil, Rede Globo, established Globo Filmes, an ostensibly independent film production unit that subsequently has solidified its role as a major Brazilian coproduction company. Soon afterward, a new agency was established (Agência Nacional de Cinema, ANCINE) and charged with supporting the film industry, which it did in part by supporting commercial filmmaking. Then, under the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–10), federal cultural policies further supported commercial audiovisual production.3
In her analysis of the commercial orientation of contemporary Brazilian cinema in recent years, Courtney Brannon Donoghue notes that these new configurations—technical and production—have led to a blockbuster cycle that adapts aspects of Hollywood blockbuster production strategies (sequels, spin-offs, transmedia potential). However, the Brazilian blockbuster model operates differently from Hollywood's in that Brazilian productions face dissimilar challenges (such as competition from foreign films) and mobilize markers of cultural specificity, such as focusing on genre trends and a local star system.4 Urban crime thrillers, biopics, and comedies have emerged as the most important local genre trends that have been competitive alongside the enduring dominance of Hollywood imports.
Rezende and D'Amato have embraced big-budget comedy production and drawn on their experience working in television to solidify their careers in both audiovisual markets. D'Amato has directed productions for the Globo Network and cast members of the local Globo star system in S.O.S. Women Overboard. Similarly, Rezende parlayed her experience directing for the cable network Multishow, which aired the twenty-six-episode TV series My Past Condemns Me (2012–14). Furthermore, Rezende cast in both productions Fábio Porchat, a well-known comedic actor with a following on the YouTube channel Porta dos Fundos.
Critics panned both films, calling them mediocre, superficial, and relying on stereotypes.5 Their negative critiques repeat a long-standing tension between commercial and auteur cinema in Brazil and a historic rejection of comedy generally by film critics.6 But bloggers on social media mostly praised the films, calling out the critics for not recognizing that spectators go to the cinema for entertainment and not always to see avant-garde works of the seventh art.7 Indeed, negative reviews did not dissuade audiences from either film. Both were among the highest-grossing movies of 2013 and 2014. These earnings allowed Rezende and D'Amato to direct sequels released in 2015, which also registered box office success.
Rezende's and D'Amato's work in film comedy is unique from a historical perspective. Since the 1970s, when women began developing consistent careers as filmmakers in Brazil, the majority have directed dramatic features distributed by small, local distribution companies.8 An analysis of films released between 1995 and 2014 reveals that of all films directed by women that have been picked up by one of the five international distributors operating (and dominating the market) in Brazil (Fox, Sony-Universal, Warner, Disney, and Paramount), approximately half are comedies.9 These calculations suggest that comedy is an arena in which women have the possibility for more equal presence in the Brazilian film industry despite still being very much in the minority as directors of feature-length films.10
LOVE IN BOOM-TIME BRAZIL
The cultural and historic period from which these films emerge and with which they dialogue is marked by the narrative of the “new Brazil”—an idealistic concept of an emerging nation bookended by Lula's presidency in 2003 and the beginning of economic and political instability around 2014.11 More specifically, economic changes impacted gendered roles and heteronormative romance. Historically, economic booms in Brazil have resulted in a greater propensity for (heterosexual) couples to marry.12 Thus, contemporary romantic comedies can be seen as intervening discursively in how romance is conceptualized in the recent “boom” period. An interest on the part of Brazilian audiences in rethinking romance may also explain why these and other romantic comedies have performed as well as they have in theaters.13
Both films largely follow the narrative structure of the romantic comedy but add culturally specific elements of humor also found in past film comedy. The opening sequence of S.O.S. Women Overboard introduces the domestic employee Dialinda (Thalita Carauta), who walks casually through a home with the sounds of sexual activity in the background. When she enters a back room, expectations are disrupted and a humorous tone is established. Viewers do not interrupt an amorous couple but instead meet the protagonist, Adriana (Giovanna Antonelli), who translates and subtitles pornographic films, a job she has held for approximately ten years while postponing her own writing career and supporting her husband, Eduardo (Marcello Airoldi). Later that day, Adriana picks up her husband from a business trip and in the car he informs her bluntly that he wants a divorce in order to pursue an affair with the famous, beautiful actress Beatriz (Emanuelle Araújo).
The film further develops themes of infidelity, love, desire, and jealousy common to the romantic comedy. Angered after reading in the celebrity news that her ex-husband will be traveling with his new girlfriend on a cruise to Italy, Adriana convinces her sister, Luiza (Fabiula Nascimento), to join her on the trip to try to win him back. Aboard the cruise, Adriana meets a new love interest, André (Reynaldo Gianecchini), who she had initially mistaken for being gay when she saw him hug a man (his father, as it turns out) at the docks and because of his profession (as a fashion stylist). Overall, the film follows the plot of a romantic comedy but includes some modifications. Whereas a traditional romantic comedy deploys a “boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl” structure, Adriana pursues her ex-husband before realizing she loves André. In the pursuit, characters make use of verbal wit, masquerade, physical humor, and acts of deception (malandragem) common to the chanchada.14
Whereas S.O.S. Women Overboard begins with the breakdown of a marriage, My Past Condemns Me opens with Fabió (Fábio Porchat) and Miá (Miá Mello) getting dressed to be married before a judge. Like the opening sequence of D'Amato's film, here, too, the film quickly establishes a humorous tone and its connection to the romantic comedy. The introduction to these characters extracts religion from their union and underscores a view of their marriage as a personal and legal partnership. From the romantic comedy, the film clearly points to beliefs about heteronormative romance and compatibility between people (of different temperaments and backgrounds). Standing in line at the courthouse, they realize they didn't bring a witness and don't have enough money to pay the required fees. Educated working professional Miá plays a calm and collected but happy young bride to the perennially underemployed Fabió and his verbal slapstick. His rapid-fire, run-on commentary offers humorous but critical reflections on their surroundings and circumstances.
Fabió's verbal performance finds its roots in Brazilian teatro de revista (a Brazilian version of vaudeville or music hall), and his use of verbal wit to find solutions to everyday challenges is an example of the jeito, deploying creative strategies to manage bureaucracy and overcome difficulties.15 His generally clownish performance is reminiscent of the chanchada star Oscarito; indeed, Fabió even works as a clown to entertain children. In the opening sequence, Miá and Fabió's overall goofiness undermines some seriousness from the arrangement they are entering into, but it also juxtaposes modern versus traditional values, which ultimately prevail. A cut to the next scene shows the newlyweds boarding a cruise ship headed to Italy. In keeping with the tropes of the romantic comedy, tensions develop aboard as the couple clashes and works through their relationship, which is brought on primarily by running into their romantic rivals: Miá's ex-boyfriend Beto (Alejandro Claveaux) and Fabió's childhood crush Laura (Juliana Didone).
CONNECTING WITH NEW MIDDLE CLASSES
The emergence of the romantic comedy has been part of a larger strategy to develop the Brazilian film industry and reach new middle-class audiences. Writing on the eve of the retomada, the film critic and director Guilherme de Almeida Prado claimed that Brazilian cinema's strongest link with the popular classes historically has been via humor.16 Additional connections are made to audiences through aesthetics and familiar genres. Unlike past film comedies (such as the chanchadas from the 1930s to the 1950s and the pornochanchadas of the 1960s and 1970s), Rezende and D'Amato direct big-budget films with high production values, but accessible narratives. Both films clearly develop romantic plots and Manichean oppositions not uncommon to Globo's telenovelas. As romantic comedies are mostly character driven, the casting of well-known stars helps create connections with audiences interested in seeing their favorite actors.
Notwithstanding these elements, a key connection with new cinemagoing middle-class audiences is that both films include relatable, underdog protagonists who work against an elite, unfair opponent. Indeed, Adriana is the quintessential underdog protagonist, as viewers see her suffer from sadness and jealousy in an effort to win back Eduardo from the famous Beatriz. Notably, the underdog protagonist is an everywoman and not an average man (as frequently found in chanchadas). In particular, viewers and diegetic audience members support Adriana when Beatriz bullies her into singing with her at talent show aboard the cruise. Beatriz, who sings the song “Funiculí, Funiculà” in Italian and in tune, gains admiration for her refined musical competence. Adriana, who initially sulks at the idea of singing on stage, uses her verbal wit to strategically change lyrics and insult Beatriz while singing confidently off-key. Adriana's reinvented lyrics maintain the rhythm of the Italian song but she changes the words to refer to Beatriz as a husband-stealing fornicator with false breasts. Here, the combination of verbal and physical slapstick critiques the elite (embodied by Beatriz) and reveals Adriana as triumphant against her rival (figs. 1, 2).
Similar to Adriana in S.O.S. Women Overboard, Fabió in My Past Condemns Me is the character with whom spectators identify and hope will triumph. Fabió's masculinity is challenged more directly by Beto as a romantic rival but also indirectly by Miá's level of education and her status as the financial breadwinner. Yet he tries to meet these challenges. When he runs into Beto at the ship's gym, he attempts to keep pace (literally) next to him on a treadmill but, being out of shape, falls on the machine, winded (fig. 3).
The tension between Beto and Fabió is proper to the romantic comedy—having to overcome challenges to a romantic union. Fabió, however, does not give up easily. At a costume ball event, he dresses as a tugboat while Miá dons a sailor's outfit. Meanwhile, Beto appears as a pirate, which is apropos of his self-centered, winner-take-all attitude. Fabió leaves the ball with a friend but when they return, Fabió sees Beto kiss Miá. Not realizing Beto kissed her aggressively and without her permission, he misinterprets the kiss as evidence that Beto, the wealthy and attractive ex-boyfriend, has seduced Miá. In the following scenes, viewers see Fabió drown his sorrows in a bar, talking with anyone who will listen. Sharing his humiliation and sadness is a key trope in the romantic comedy to prove that love is more important than dignity. When Fabió is found the next morning “shipwrecked” on the passenger deck, the combination of visual pun and melodramatic exaggeration cements his role as the underdog spectators support (fig. 4). Fabió does not stand on familiar ground, and he feels adrift aboard the ship without Miá.
SUPPORTING SOCIAL MOBILITY AND CONSUMERISM
The reemergence of film comedy in Brazil has benefited the industry financially, but comedy has also lent support to the socioeconomic and political moment. Comedies like S.O.S Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me portray characters negotiating “elite” experiences newly available to them. Consequently, instances of awkwardness and incongruity serve as key moments of mirth in both films. Theorists have proposed that incongruity is a key dimension of laughter and humor.17 Andrew Horton suggests that we consider how film comedy critiques cross-class relations and comments on class conflicts or hierarchies of power.18 Regarding the romantic comedy in Hollywood, scholars observe a tendency to address conflicting social class relations, especially in the screwball comedy subgenre.19
Incongruity and the mobilization of humor to critique class relations find resonance in the Latin American context generally and Brazil specifically. Although an under-studied area to date, humor has been cited as a key modality to critique the uneven and in-egalitarian processes of modernity and modernization in Latin America.20 In Brazil, film comedy has frequently played an ambivalent role. It has provided a venue for the masses of the lower classes to vent their frustrations against a dominant, elite class.21 Comedy, including parody and satire, has served as a form of political and economic critique.22 Film comedy has also served to integrate disparate social groups. Mônica Rugai Bastos asserts that chanchadas mobilized comedy to speak to middle-class audiences, promote a new idea of the nation, and integrate social actors. In sum, humor was deployed to harmonize social contrasts in the development of Brazilian national identity.23
Comedy is once again mobilized to support social integration. Whereas the chanchadas of the 1940s and 1950s afforded a space to challenge the status quo, the same process does not take place fully in the present. Brazilian film comedy of the past tended to critique Brazil's lack of development with parody and self-deprecating humor, highlighting and making fun of the contradictions and failings of modernity as experienced in Brazil.24 Recent film comedies such as My Past Condemns Me and S.O.S. Women Overboard certainly mock the elite, but these films mobilize humor in order to think about how to integrate formerly excluded members of society whose socioeconomic status has changed significantly. However, this effort at assimilation is by degrees more than a wholehearted integration.
During the economic boom years (2002 to 2014), the rise of the new middle class was a much-heralded phenomenon. Millions of Brazilians moved into the middle class and began spending their disposable income. Travel and leisure figured among the lifestyle practices that the middle class began to enjoy as part of a process of building and celebrating their new social identity. Maritime cruises featured prominently in the imaginary of emerging consumers as glamorous and fashionable leisure activities that were not only fun but also markers of their new class status.25 Given that the new middle class also flocked to the cinemas, two of Brazil's maritime cruise companies, MSC Cruzeiros and Costa Cruzeiros, sponsored S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me, respectively, to advertise their businesses and bring new consumers aboard. The Brazilian tour company CVC collaborated further by offering packages to visit the sites portrayed in D'Amato's film. Metaphorically and literally, both films encourage the new middle class to set sail.
Both works include characters who are new to participating in luxurious leisure activities. Indeed, Fabió and Dialinda embody the role of the new consumer unaccustomed to but curious about previously inaccessible experiences. The ship becomes a space of freedom, reflection, and potential egalitarian cross-class interactions. However, a mismatch of class status and awkwardness from lack of travel experience sets up several humorous scenes in both works. For instance, Fabió, who is afraid and has never been on a ship, does not understand that passengers participate in a mandatory safety drill shortly after they board. His anxieties about being on the ocean (and unable to swim) prompt him to wear a bright orange life vest to dinner and also as the couple has “safe” sex (fig. 5).
Characters also reveal that they are new to the experience by their attitude or position toward spending money. Fabió's obsession with expenses and getting his “money's worth” unwittingly prompts the first run-in with Miá's millionaire ex-boyfriend, Beto. In this way he embodies the experiences of numerous Brazilians who cautiously enjoyed newfound purchasing power. Similar to Fabió, Dialinda in S.O.S. Women Overboard has never been on a cruise and, despite not initially being invited to go with Adriana and her sister Luiza on the trip to Italy, she jumps on board at the last minute to give Adriana an advice book and gets stuck on the ship. She is a stowaway until Adriana remarks that they will purchase another ticket for her, sustaining a historically cordial and benevolent but hierarchical relationship between senhora (boss) and doméstica (employee). Notwithstanding the paternalism of Adriana, their characters announce that there is a place for this new social class in elite leisure activities and they are welcomed.
THE QUEST FOR LOVE
Tamar Jeffers McDonald asserts that a defining element of the romantic comedy is a quest for love.26 If love is the mission in these films, then what do they say about contemporary ideals of romance? Alexia Bowler, who finds the romantic comedy a highly conservative genre, suggests that scholars consider how romantic comedies attempt to deal with changing socio-sexual codes but warns of how sexual conservatism can often be renewed or sustained in the genre.27
Although S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me attempt to negotiate class differences, they sustain conservative ideas regarding class and romance. Indeed, My Past Condemns Me thinks through the challenges of contemporary coupledom not just in terms of affective relations but also through class relations. The wealthy entrepreneur Beto is married to Laura, who is a tall, thin, blonde physician, and from southern Brazil.28 Whereas Beto and Laura are the beautiful, elite, thin, fit, and educated couple and Fabió and Miá are fun-loving newlyweds who genuinely love each other despite their differences, Suzana (Inez Viana) and Wilson (Marcelo Valle), who work on the ship, form a quirky union of malandros, a character in Brazilian culture who uses his or her cunning and deception (malandragem) to take advantage of others in order to find practical solutions to problems. Their malandragem aboard is to grift passengers of their money to help them get divorced yet, paradoxically, their goal to get away from one another also unites them.29 And while the malandro has more traditionally been a male character, Suzana is far more cunning and deceptive than her husband and, subsequently, transgresses gendered expectations. The three couples are counters to one another but also represent different social classes: Suzana/Wilson (lower-middle class), Miá/Fabió (middle class), Laura/Beto (elite). In keeping with past comedy, the elite Laura and Beto are ultimately revealed as miserable and dishonest while the members of the lower classes are genuinely in love.
In S.O.S. Women Overboard, Dialinda, who has a slightly darker skin tone, curly (but straightened) hair, and speaks with a less prestigious accent in Portuguese, does not find romance with a paying traveler. As if taking a cue from the chanchada actor Oscarito, she awkwardly masquerades as a wealthy businesswoman of French ancestry and speaks in Portuguese with extraneous “sh” sounds.30 Thus, she farcically imitates the mode of supposedly more prestigious speech common to Rio de Janeiro or Portugal than the character's normal accent, which a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian audience would associate with somewhere from the north or northeast or, alternatively, more generally with people of lower social class status. Dialinda finds companionship with Charlesnilson (Rodrigo Ferrarini), who does not hide that he works on the ship, but the aesthetics of his presentation suggest that he has an important position on board: he wears a formal white jacket and is very well-mannered. While she masquerades as a French-born representative of an Italian jewelry company, he claims to be “Charles” and not speak Portuguese well, breaking into English phrases intermittently (fig. 6).
Their ruse in which they pretend to be what they are not is eventually revealed. This unsuccessful attempt by Dialinda and Charlesnilson to fake their class and geographic origins repeats a frequent scenario from chanchada films in which characters fail in their efforts at social climbing.31 Once their true identities are revealed, their physical appearance and dress change notably. This is particularly evident when the cruise ship is docked at Venice and the two are walking on (the equivalent of) solid ground, which also suggests that their pretenses were funny when they were on the high seas but their real social status must be resumed when they set foot again on land (fig. 7). Dialinda appears with curly hair, and her clothing is more typical of a lower-middle-class Brazilian woman: snug-fitting pants and a belt that accentuate the hips, a colorful top, and large earrings. For his part, Charlesnilson has shed the tuxedo in exchange for shorts, a T-shirt, a narrow-brimmed hat, and a backpack. Thus, their authentic socioeconomic status is indicated by the aesthetic choices of their physical presentation. Both characters also shed their fake accents. When Charlesnilson speaks with Dialinda on dry land his presumably real accent can be heard, which is a very marked, identifiable accent from Pernambuco, a less economically developed state in northeastern Brazil. In this way, the film unfortunately repeats the long-standing stereotype of the poor character from the northeast. Although the film makes them the traditional silly characters and reveals the folly of their attempts at social climbing (much like chanchadas of the past), both Dialinda and Charlesnilson are also presented as otherwise honest, respectable, and ultimately proud to be who they are.
The possibility (and threat) of cross-class romance is present but not developed in My Past Condemns Me and S.O.S. Women Overboard. Whereas cross-class romances were common in the screwball mode of the romantic comedy in Hollywood of the early to mid-twentieth century (for instance It Happened One Night ) and various examples exist in the contemporary period (The Proposal , the Bridget Jones series [2001, 2004, 2016], and Why Him? ), the same is not found in these Brazilian films.
Both romantic comedies clearly uphold heteronormative romance and present the challenges of interpersonal affective relationships. They fail, however, in presenting diverse sexualities, especially LGBT identities. In this way, the limits of these contemporary romantic comedies to negotiate changing socio-sexual codes comes to the fore. Being mistaken for gay or lesbian prompts amusement in both films. If incongruity prompts laughter, then it is imperative to consider what is deemed out of place. For example, Fabió briefly joins a group of men celebrating but then realizes nervously that he has joined a gay stag party. His desperate and nervous reaction is intended to bring laughter, which is premised on homophobic fears that gay men might (apparently) convert or recruit straight men. Adriana initially—and dismissively—thought André was gay. Later this mistaken identity becomes a source of relief and humor for her. After Dialinda is caught on board by Eduardo and he chases her back to her cabin, Luiza tries to explain their presence aboard by claiming that they are a closeted lesbian couple on a secret cruise. Eduardo's voyeuristic demand that they prove it by kissing makes Dialinda obviously nervous and uncomfortable but also sets up the “humorous” moment (fig. 8). Her grimace as Luiza approaches to kiss shows that kissing her isn't acceptable (initially) and is meant for the audience to laugh. Later, however, she compliments Luiza for being such a good kisser, which serves to defuse the tension (fig. 9). It isn't that homosexuality is inherently hilarious in these films, but rather that anxieties about non-heteronormativity find a release in laughter in a conservative culture shaped (albeit increasingly less so) by Catholic traditions.
NO SEX PLEASE! JUST PERSONAL SATISFACTION
These romantic comedies include the pursuit of romance, but they preclude passion. Notwithstanding failed attempts by Luiza to seduce the Italian singer, women do not seek sexual satisfaction in either film. Rather, Miá and Adriana are portrayed as generally dissatisfied, which repeats a trend in contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies.32 In what other ways are they empowered as individuals (and at whose expense)? If Dialinda initially finds some power through subterfuge, Adriana exercises her sovereignty through consumerism. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra have observed how postfeminist culture—defined as the cultural context that has emerged after the second wave women's movements and not as a coherent set of transnationally shared or political philosophical stances—works to commodify feminism “via the figure of the woman as empowered consumer” whereby consumption is a strategy to produce the self.33 Tasker and Negra's observations have resonance in the Brazilian context.34 During the economic boom period, inflation was stabilized, access to consumer credit opened up, and consumption by emerging consumers was seen as a mode of integration.35 Women were targeted in the media as the new leaders of the consumer-driven, emerging economy.36
Consumerism as mode of self-fashioning is less an obvious issue for Miá in My Past Condemns Me. Although it bothers Fabió, who is not accustomed to having disposable income and refers to her as a spendthrift (gastadeira), she spends money to enjoy herself on the trip (for instance to have a cocktail), but not in an excessive or ostentatious way. In contrast, for Adriana in S.O.S. Women Overboard, her purchasing power is her way of sustaining a hierarchy over Dialinda as well as a method for seeking revenge on her ex-husband, Eduardo. Still in possession of his credit card, she goes on a shopping spree and purchases a new wardrobe (and possibly Dialinda's cruise passage) to exhaust the credit limit so he cannot make purchases for his new girlfriend. Adriana then steals Beatriz's clothes and personal beauty supplies (lotions, makeup, hair styling products), but the plan backfires when the cruise line's insurance policy allows Beatriz to go on an extravagant shopping spree to replace her stolen belongings. Minus the differing experiences of joy, victimization, and revenge, in both instances Beatriz and Adriana are portrayed as powerful and in charge when they can acquire new items, which is part of a broader theme of self-improvement.
Yet agency for both Miá and Adriana is achieved not just by their class status or their consumer spending power but primarily by becoming happier as part of a process of improving as a person. Regarding both female characters, viewers see the arc of their development as happy in the beginning before one or more negative events happens, causing them sadness or frustration. Both protagonists in conversation with others comment on the state of their happiness as an issue of concern for them. Viewers see these protagonists as crestfallen and frustrated, such as when Adriana is rejected by her husband and when Miá must find patience to manage Fabió's antics. These negative moments are paired with scenes where travel companions try to help them out of their low state. The narrative is resolved as they struggle and return to presumably an original, authentic, happy starting point.
Regardless of their circumstances, the burden is placed on the individual woman to be content. Eventually, Miá comes to accept that she needs to be more tolerant of her husband's fun-loving, frequently juvenile behavior. For her part, Adriana embarks on an accidental self-help journey during which she finds her own “voice” and finally authors a successful “anti-self-help” (antiautoajuda) book titled S.O.S. Mulheres ao Mar (also the name of the film), which points directly at the self-help and self-improvement industry. Both protagonists are asked to evolve in new directions and become better, improved versions—that is, happier versions—of themselves. If “S.O.S” is an international signal for help, the onus is on the individual female character to save herself and ameliorate her attitude. Their agency is expressed to a large extent more through a socially acceptable mood or psychological state than via their statements.
What is the broader significance of encouraging these women to transform and improve their well-being? Stéphanie Genz asks us to consider how femininity is a site for considering how a neoliberal society “constructs individuals as autonomous and free.”37 Brazil is a nation whose economy has been guided by neoliberal policies for decades. Miá and Adriana are asked to find happiness, which is presumably linked to a more liberated and authentic subjectivity.
Yet happiness within the logic of economic neoliberalism is more than a matter of not being negative. Sam Binkley asserts that happiness has become measurable and a strategy of governing, treated as an index of national development akin to a Gini coefficient (a common measure of income distribution or inequality) or gross domestic product.38 What is more, Binkley argues that happiness is at the core of interpersonal, intimate life, which is in turn a “paradigmatic concern for social governments.”39 In tune with Binkley's observations, the Brazilian economist Marcelo Neri celebrated the rise of the new middle class in Brazil both in terms of greater disposable incomes but also in terms of happiness indices. Indeed, his assessment of happiness moves Brazil past the rates of African nations and places it in the ranks of European nations, suggesting that the nation has finally achieved its long-promised potential as a country of the future.40 Neri's sanguine assessment has less to do with real equality and is more a diplomatic strategy employed by emerging nations wishing to be taken seriously by developed nations (especially those in the West). Historically, however, humor has been central to national identity. The idea that the Brazilian character is dotado de graça (inherently fun loving) was cultivated in chanchadas and consonant with the political tenor and economic plans of the Getúlio Vargas era (1930–45), which sought to promote Brazil as a country of happiness, carnival, and samba.41 Being happy—and not thoughtful, demanding, self-reliant, or even entrepreneurial—is a neoliberal mentality both Adriana and Miá are shown (patronizingly) as needing to cultivate to be more fulfilled, liberated, and (ultimately) authentic Brazilian women.
Despite the encouragement to find happiness, there are limits to their laughter. Dianna Niebylski and Kathleen Rowe Karlyn have considered the relationship between the body and women's humor, noting that the female body has been portrayed as excessive and unruly in Latin American literature and Hollywood films and television.42 While Niebylski examines how embodied practices of humor can “propose new configurations of female subjectivity,” Rowe Karlyn focuses on how humor can be transgressive and challenge patriarchal expectations and authority.43 However, neither My Past Condemns Me nor S.O.S. Women Overboard present a strong challenge to patriarchal norms. In the case of My Past Condemns Me, Miá plays the “straight” character to Fabió's physical unruliness and verbal play. Miá certainly engages in lighthearted moments, but her task is to rationally tolerate Fabió's behavior while his task is to become more adult-like and accept his role as a responsible and supportive husband to Miá. For Adriana in S.O.S. Women Overboard, letting go for a night of accidental drug-induced folly and other moments of physical unruliness (crawling under a table, climbing through windows, inebriated dancing on a bar) contributes to her eventually finding herself and a new love (fig. 10). Rather than free her from patriarchal constraints, her physical unruliness creates moments of humiliation and vulnerability that contribute to a bond with André, who gazes at her with curiosity.44
By contrast, for Dialinda, her physical unruliness serves more as a humorous comedic narrative device, such as when Eduardo unexpectedly sees her, leading to the discovery that Adriana has followed him aboard. Lastly, Luiza, who is presented as a defiant, sexually forward, independent, and (ostensibly) progressive woman, learns a humbling lesson when an Italian singer rejects her advances, informing her that he is married and completely faithful to his wife. These moments of physical unruliness and noncompliance with supposedly proper behavior in both films eventually lead to a call for the characters to be more contained and conform to established norms: behave like an adult, accept failure, don't pretend to be who you aren't, control your sexual advances. In other words, the female characters who find some temporary freedoms on the cruise ship are ultimately subjected to a conservative “reining” in. They can strive to be happy and enjoy their freedom aboard the ship, but eventually they must come back under some control.
Most of the female characters of both films discussed here reflect the discourses of an emerging nation with international aspirations. They are globally oriented women who possess passports and travel abroad, enjoy middle- and upper-middle-class purchasing power, and speak other (European) languages. They are also educated, white-collar professionals: Miá is an economic journalist, Adriana is a translator and writer, and Luiza works in advertising and photography. When her character is introduced early in the film, Luiza reverses traditional gender roles and looks at men, assessing the degree to which they meet physical ideals of masculine beauty. This unexpected reversal of looking relations challenges expectations in a way that provokes a laugh. In the case of both S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me, the female characters are sophisticated, knowledgeable, and ready to enjoy what the world has to offer them.
Under varying circumstances, the female characters are presented as women heading to foreign destinations, which prompts a more critical reflection on the idea of passages and arrivals. The ship or ocean cruise liner was a symbol of modernity in the early twentieth century and the frequent, glamorous setting for many chanchadas and Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s. In these contemporary romantic comedies, the cruise ship operates again as a symbol of economic development as well as a metaphor of cultural passage or crossing.45 Through travel, S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me present a negotiated belonging and engaging with the global community on equal footing—members of a formerly undeveloped, so-called Third-World nation can enjoy the leisure experiences of elite, industrialized nations. However, inclusion remains very much incomplete. The same social figures are marginalized in these films, including ambitious women, those who are of lower income or less educated, racially and ethnically marked characters, and homosexuals. This conservatism is met with a sense of progress. In this way, the cruise ship also draws attention to an impending arrival. These films celebrate and promote the notion that Brazil and its people are en route to participate on the world stage. More broadly and synthesizing points above, comedic scenarios with women at the center of these films serve contemporary political and economic purposes in that they negotiate socioeconomic change and its impact on heteronormative romance and gender.
Despite offering valuable critiques of society, a topic examined by philosophers and serving as a barometer of cultures, few scholars have focused on film comedy in Latin American cinema generally, and even fewer have considered women and humor in Brazilian cinema. Women directors in Brazil have gravitated historically toward dramatic feature film production, and scholars who have addressed women's filmmaking in Brazil have privileged discussion of dramas, melodramas, documentaries, and historical works. However, film comedy in Brazil has grown remarkably in recent years, which can be attributed partly to the fact that comedies are local productions that prove competitive vis-à-vis foreign (mostly Hollywood) imports.
Júlia Rezende and Cris D'Amato stand out as two directors who have been highly successful in the current landscape of Brazilian cinema for embracing big-budget filmmaking, merging television and film production, and directing box office hit romantic comedies. Both films discussed here include limited but progressive portrayals of class and gender: the sanctity of marriage is questioned; women are professional, independent, and sexually liberated; members of different classes socialize together. Yet contemporary film comedies like S.O.S. Women Overboard and My Past Condemns Me also negotiate and promote geopolitically compatible, gendered subjectivities in an emerging Brazil. Characters are encouraged to join in consumer culture and to strive to become happier individuals. In this way, a broader neoliberal orientation in the culture of boom-time Brazil becomes apparent. Assuming the commercial orientation of the Brazilian film industry continues, to what degree will future commercial comedy productions accommodate more clearly feminist viewpoints? Although broad in scope, this is a question that must be asked in future studies of women, gender, and film comedy in Brazil.