• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Monday, April 06, 2020

    Brazilian Biblical Telenovelas


    For some time now I’ve been meaning to write about the various biblical telenovelas that have emerged from Brazil in the last decade. As their description implies, telenovelas are extremely long running TV series – somewhere between a US TV series and a soap opera – which may run for between 30 and 200 episodes. Whilst the first, 1951’s Sua vida me pretence ("Your Life Belongs to Me") originated in Brazil, they have been popular across South America since the 1960s and more recently have gained growing audiences in various other parts of the world, notably Asia and the Iberian peninsula. Indeed while Wikipedia’s claim that telenovelas are the "most popular non-English-speaking scripted forms of entertainment in the world" is both unsourced and unlikely (given books, music and video games all fall into that category), it nevertheless gives you a suggestion of the form’s popularity across the world despite most of the English speaking world being entirely unfamiliar with the term.

    The development of biblical telenovelas is interesting not least because it represents a seventh type of format for biblical screen drama1. The sheer running length means that the vast majority of the material is invented. Huge casts play fictional roles in made-up sub-plots supporting an overall narrative which combines the silver thread of a biblical episode with other archetypal plots such as the love-triangle, rags to riches etc.

    What's remarkable about all of these biblical telenovelas so far is that they have all been made by the same company - Rede Record. Prior to beginning these series, Record TV was a significant way behind Brazil's leading production company, Globo. Indeed, not only did Globo specialise in telenovelas, they also had so much market dominance that the only programmes in the annual top ten ratings were those made by Globo a dominance that dates back to the 1960s.2 Record had tried to compete with telenovelas set in contemporary times, it was only when they struck on the idea of producing biblical telenovelas that they started to get places in the top ten.

    So far Record have produced the following biblical series:
    -A História de Ester (Esther, pictured,10* 2010)
    -Sansao e Dalila (Samson, 18, 2011)
    -Rei Davi (David, 30, 2012)
    -José do Egito (Joseph, 38, 2013)
    -Os Milagres de Jesus (Jesus' Miracles, 35, 2012-14)
    -Os Dez Mandamentos (Moses, 242, 2015-16)
    -A Terra Prometida (Promised Land, 179, 2016-17)
    -O Rico e Lázaro (Daniel†, 181, 2017)
    -Apocalipse (Revelation, 155, 2017-8)
    -Lia (Leah [and Jacob], 10, 2018)
    -Jesus (Jesus/Acts, 193, 2018-19)
    -Jezabel (80, 2019)
    *First number cited is the number of episodes for each story.
    †The title translates as "The Rich (man) and Lazarus" - the parable which Jesus tells, but the story is set in the time of Daniel in exile in Babylon with Nebuchadnezzar on the scene.
    That's a reasonably comprehensive list, though if you look at some of the popular stories that haven't been covered yet - Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Lot - are all in Genesis. I don't know if Rei Davi (2012), which I wrote about in 2014, goes so far as to include Solomon, but otherwise most of the stories that have been covered before to a significant level have now been done.
    Moreover, adding up all those episodes gives a total of 1171 episodes, and each episode has at least a running time of about 30 minutes. Wikipedia says Os Dez Mandamentos (The Ten Commandments, 2015-16) lasts for 60 minutes. Given it featured an incredible 242 episodes that means it ran for around 242 hours - more than an hour of material for every minute of Cecil B. DeMille's famous epic of the same name. Perhaps it's not surprising that of all the stories these telenovelas have told, it was this one that was edited into a feature film. Os Dez Mandamentos - O Filme (2016) cut all that material down to just 2 hours (according to IMDb) and then again to 78 minutes for the DVD. Whilst some good samples of these shows are available from the Record TV website, US Netflix or on YouTube etc. this film is the only complete material with English subtitles that can be bought in permanent form, at least that I have found. I'm expecting my copy any time now.

    What's also interesting is that Record TV is owned by the founder of Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) an evangelical group that is part of a growing conservative movement in Brazil - jumping to around 22% of the population in the 2010 census vs 70% Roman Catholic. Officially the country is secular. This is a very different background to the UK and it's hard to think of, say, The God Channel finding itself in such a position.

    This becomes more significant because telenovelas have a reputation for being used in the past to shape social attitudes. The most famous example of the former is the Mexican telenovela Acompañame (Accompany Me, 1977-78) which promoted family planning, saw a very significant rise in family planning-related activity in those years, and commissioning of further family-planning messaged productions.3 As a result another four series were made with similar aims.

    It's the kind of thing that liberal/atheists hate and conservative/evangelicals love. It's either a great step in evangelism and making inroads into the culture, or it's a worrying trend aligning with a move to the right in many countries at the moment. It's hard not to see the rise of such telenovelas as part of a wider cultural movement that saw a right-wing, Catholic-turned-evangelical win Brazil's 2018 presidential election.

    In any case I'm interested to find out more about the subject and hope to review Os Dez Mandamentos - O Filme once my copy arrives. There's an interesting chapter on these productions by Clarice Greco, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira in "The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium" (ed. Wickham Clayton) for those seeking more information, and enough material to watch on Record TV's website to get a good feel for the phenomenon.4

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    1 - In addition to feature films, short films, television series, mini-series, TV plays, live broadcast stage-productions. A further potential format is the soap-opera, but I know of no such venture based on the Bible.
    2 - Greco, Clarice, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira (2020) “The Phenomenon of Biblical Telenovelas in Latin America” in Clayton, Wickham (ed.) The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit. Manchester: Manchester University Press p.71.
    3 - Basten, Stuart (2009) "Mass media and reproductive behaviour: serial narratives, soap operas and telenovelas". The Future of Human Reproduction: Working Paper #7.St. John’s College, Oxford & Vienna Institute of Demography. p.4-6
    Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20121119022224/ https://www.spi.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/PDF/Soaps_-_Number_7.pdf
    4 - My tip would be to search for the individual titles listed above on the Record website and then watch the various video clips. Google translate is useful for getting the gist for those who, like me, don't speak any Portuguese.

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