Brazil's soaps wash away the mother tongue of Portugal

Elizabeth Nash watches the drama unfold as imported serials take over the life of a nation

Brazilian soap operas have invaded Portugal's four television channels and now reign supreme over prime-time scheduling. Of last year's top-50 programmes, 48 were soaps from Brazil. Their influence has become so strong that the Portuguese are adopting Brazilian expressions and customs in an astonishing process of cultural colonialism in reverse.

Up to eight Brazilian soap operas or telenovelas are shown every day, back to back, with a respite only for the lunchtime and evening news. By channel-hopping you can spend your entire waking hours watching them, and to judge from the ratings, many Portuguese do.

One hugely popular saga, O rei do gado (Cattle King) that has just finished - sending regretful sighs sweeping the nation - was seen by a record- breaking 74 per cent of television-watching Portuguese - outscoring even football, with which it frequently competed for the peak slots.

Based on Brazil's centuries-long conflict between landowners and peasants, its daily hour-long episodes tackled the issue of land reform. The climax coincided with a cross-country trek by real-life landless Brazilians who marched upon the capital Brasilia in pursuit of justice.

In Portugal, the language is becoming peppered with Brazilian soap slang, like cafune (caress), fofoca (intrigue, particularly a political one), curtir (to have fun), or agua con azucar (to take things easy or describe something as honey-sweet). The expressions themselves give some idea of the soaps' content.

Todo bem (everything OK) is ousting the more usual como esta? as Portugal's way of saying hello, and the Brazilian Esta a dar and Ta! are now commonly used by Portuguese for "OK, good". Even more remarkable are the copied gestures: one landowner character had his wrists laden with gold bracelets, which he would shake when angry. Portuguese - even without bracelets - have copied the gesture.

"Demographic studies show that Brazilian soaps are watched by all social and economic groups, including children, and by only slightly more women than men," says Manuel Fonseca, Deputy Programme Director of the private Portuguese channel, SIC, which has cornered the soap market through a preferential deal struck two years ago with Brazil's Globo television.

Globo, which owns 15 per cent of SIC, produces Brazil's glossiest and most expensive soaps, like Indomada (Indomitable) about a free-thinking woman who enjoys sex with her husband, that has replaced O rei do gado, Corpe e Alma (Body and Soul), and Anjo de Mim (My Own Angel).

The genre has a noble lineage. The first, Gabriela, based on the novel by Jorge Amado, conquered Portuguese living rooms in 1975 in the heady days following the "carnation revolution" against the generals. An instant hit, it starred the actress Sonia Braga who made an international name for herself portraying Amado heroines.

Amado's entire oeuvre, with its lush settings, sensuous females, beautiful boys and scowling patriarchs, plus its profound social conscience, is quintessential soap material, to which Brazilian producers have contributed top-class actors, directors and camera operators.

"There is a big difference between Brazilian soaps and those from, say, Mexico and Venezuela which are very bad," says Mr Fonseca. Globo invests much more money in sets, writers, costumes and actors. "They are comparable to the best American soaps, like Dallas," he says. "Not kitsch at all."

But one Portuguese man confessed that he made every effort to keep away from them, "because they're addictive, you stop going out and your life just passes you by".

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