By Janet Tappin Coelho in Rio de Janeiro
A samba school that portrayed politicians as rats with money stuffed in briefcases has been crowned winners of this year’s Rio Carnival.
Beija-Flor of Nilopolis, won its fourteenth title, clinching the top prize by one decimal point on Wednesday (14 February) scoring 269.6 with a powerful theme that took aim at Brazil’s social ills: corruption, violence, inequality, racism and religious intolerance.
Runner-up was Paraíso do Tuiuti, the samba school responsible for the crash that killed one person and injured 19 in last year’s bash. It received 269.5 points and also presented a highly politicised theme.
But both samba schools faced criticism from those who claimed they didn’t deserve the top spots.
Beija-Flor was blasted for not being creative enough and failing to display a ‘beautiful’ parade full of lavish and over the top costumes.
Many of the school’s performers wore normal clothes, such as shorts, tee-shirts and uniforms, and not the elaborate creations normally associated with the parade.
Critics also took a dig at the school as the honorary president, Anísio Abraão David, is currently appealing a 48 year prison sentence handed down in 2007 for corruption and for running a gang that laundered money through the organisation.
Tuiuti’s win was slammed by victims of the 2017 accident who said the school should have been ‘barred from parading for a least a year’ because the victims have still not been compensated.
Nevertheless, it was Beija-Flor’s plot that resonated with the 72,000-strong crowd in the Sambadrome who roared with approval at the controversial themes portrayed by over 3,500 performers, separated into 36 groups, each acting out a different aspect of the story line.
In shocking dramatizations, the parade depicted the current problems hitting Brazil using metaphors of terror and corruption such as actors dressed up as wolves in sheep’s clothing, along with harsh representations of violence – death, mayhem, grief, greed that were not covered up with the traditional luxury and aesthetics associated with the Brazilian carnival.
One of the floats was a huge rat, representing corrupt politicians, pulling a replica of the headquarters of corruption-plagued state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
As the car made its way down the Sambadrome it opened up with various sections illustrating daily life in the favelas and the social consequences: kidnappings, shootings and packed jails.
Another float carried a gunned down cop with his wife crying over her dying husband. In front of this traumatic scene was a child’s body in a coffin with the message, ‘another bit of hope lost’ and beside this was an area with ‘starving’ dirty children eating from a rubbish dump.
Another part of the parade showed oil drums with skull heads above the performers who were drenched in ‘wasted’ oil.
The school’s theme drew a parallel between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the country’s miseries with scenes depicting politicians as vermin and vultures – ‘the monsters who have wreaked havoc on the lives of generations of innocent children and destroyed the hopes of its citizens’.
At one stage, all the key organisers in Beija-Flor lined up before the judges section and got down on their knees in a bid to plead for more funding after the hefty subsidy cuts made by Mayor Marcelo Crivella last year.
Queen of the bateria or drums, Raíssa Oliveira, who was ecstatic with the win said: “Beija-Flor caught everyone’s imagination and we made people sing our samba song which spoke about the monsters who do not know how to love and who have abandoned the children of this country.
“The images were strong, and we gave a theatrical performance that shows what our country is going through. Our samba-plot was a cry for help.”
The school’s victory was criticised by Carnival connoisseurs who claimed the group did not deserve the title because it failed to conceptualise the essence of carnival, which is to transform reality and the abstract world into fantasy and allegory.
Carnival critic, Anderson Baltar, wrote on UOL news: “The parade of a samba school is to (undergo) a special treatment, with the creation of specific costumes that reproduce an idea in a creative and not obvious way.
“For example, a football player should not be represented by performers in football boots and socks. The Beija-Flor parade used and abused images without any kind of ‘carnivalisation’.
He explained that to ‘carnivalise’ means to ‘to transform, to modify, to write between the lines.’ To pick up ‘scraps of material and to turn them into gold’.
He added: “The message was good, but the way of telling the plot was poor and unfair on other schools that made the effort.”
Second place winners, Paraiso de Tuiuti also took politically charged aim at politicians and corrupt institutions as part of their samba plot.
The school told the story of slavery in Brazil and condemned the labour reform laws that have recently been approved. The last float had a satirical theme as it depicted Brazilian President Michel Temer in the form of a vampire perched on a sackful of money.
But the daughter of radio host Elizabeth Ferreira Jofre, who died from her injuries in April last year, after being run over by the Tuiuti float posted an angry message on social media on Wednesday evening.
Raphaella Ferreira Pontes said she was ‘disgusted and saddened’ by the win and claimed the school should not have participated as it has failed to provide medical support and compensation for the victims who survived.
She said: “This school never deserved to be in the Special Group this year. It should have been demoted because it ran over 20 people and killed my mother.
“How can they talk about corruption when they haven’t fulfil their own responsibility and my mother suffered greatly before she died,” she lamented.
Renato Thor, the president of Tuiuti, denied this was the case and said: “Everything (we) could do to help, we have done.”
Viradouro was crowned champions of the series A group and joins the top samba schools in the special group. Grande Rio and Impero Serrano were demoted to Series A joining Imperio de Tijuca, the samba school in which Brit dancer, Samantha Flores, performed.
The six top winners of the special group will hold a victory parade in the Sambadrome this Saturday (17 February).