By Jack Arnhold, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Over the evenings of Sunday, March 3rd, and Monday, March 4th, the fourteen samba schools in Rio’s Grupo Especial presented their ‘samba enredos’ (thematic samba compositions) to tens of thousands of appreciative onlookers. The schools mainly presented parades centered around a historical theme, with plenty of room for references to inequality, injustice, and the unsolved murder of Marielle Franco.
After a total of around twenty-one hours of parades, the favorites to emerge from the two nights are generally considered to be two of the most illustrious samba schools, Portela and Mangueira. Mangueira stunned the ‘Sambódromo’ (Sambadrome) with a political parade that drew attention to the forgotten and repressed voices of Brazilian history, while Portela led a stirring homage to Brazilian icon Clara Nunes.
Technology was also at front-and-center this year, with plenty of pyrotechnics and gadgets as every school tried to find that special something that could make them stand out. Viaradouro, another possible contender for the title, were the first really impressive school at Sunday’s parade, with a spellbinding routine involving an exploding magic book, and one of the catchiest tunes of the night.
Grande Rio also put on a slick display with their parade, which featured drones dressed up as flying emojis and a well-received appearance from actress Juliana Paes as their ‘rainha de bateria’ (queen of the drum).
Salgueiro, Beija-Flor and Imperatriz Leopoldinense all gave strong performances, but it was Viradouro’s thundering parade and Grande Rio’s technical trickery that were the highlights of the first evening.
Monday evening seemed to contain a somewhat stronger pack, with Vila Isabel making the strongest initial impact on the crowd with their exquisitely intricate ‘carros allegoricos’ (floats) and well-balanced mixture of spectacle and storytelling as they presented the history of Brazil’s imperial city of Petrópolis.
One of the most touching moments of the night fell at the end of their parade when the last carro allegorico, which symbolized the abolition of slavery, opened to reveal members of murdered Rio councillor Marielle Franco’s family singing along to the school’s song and holding a banner with the popular slogan, ‘Marielle Presente.’
Portela presented a very well-rounded and emotional tribute to Brazilian icon Clara Nunes, detailing her close relationship with the samba school as well as her respect for Afro-Brazilian culture. While they lacked the political punch of Vila Isabel, their parade was almost flawless and filled with many well-thought-out intricacies.
One of the favorite schools of last year’s parade, Paraíso do Tuiuti continued on with the political theme of the evening by presenting the story of Ioiô the goat, a figure from North-Eastern Brazilian folklore who was elected a councillor of the city of Fortaleza as a protest against the corrupt government of the day.
Mangueira followed this mischievous parade with arguably the strongest and most poignant of the night. Paying tribute to the true heroes of Brazilian history, the school addressed historic injustices against the indigenous population, black Brazilians, and the poor in a manner that used these historical crimes to highlight ongoing violence and discrimination within Brazilian society.
With strong allegorical cars that clearly put the school’s message across, the climax of the evening involved an unveiling of a modified Brazilian flag, in the pink and green colors of Mangueira, that read ‘Indigenos, Negros e Pobres.’ (Indigenous, Black, and Poor People) instead of ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) with a procession led by Mônica Benício, widow of Marielle Franco.
Whether their parade wins on Wednesday or not, Mangueira, along with many of the other schools, have shown once again how Carnival can be a powerful and effective means of protest, as well as a living cultural institution like none other on earth.