Invisible Cities – Frederico Pellachin


by Frederico Pellachin

The synthesis of a country is where the audience is. This affirmation was made by the psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl in a piece of research entitled “I saw a Brazil on TV”, published by Funarte in 1985. In that emblematic year for our political history, the Brazilian public was returning to television. They were abducted by the fictitious city of Asa Branca, conceived by the writer Dias Gomes and projected by the set designer Mario Monteiro to occupy an area in the east zone of Rio de Janeiro that was until then untouched, known as Guaratiba. There, 180 men built 26 treated wood buildings in record time – 20 days – to house the characters of the soap opera that would tell the story of Roque Santeiro, a sculptor of saints who, 17 years before the starting point of the soap opera, had tricked the whole city: looting the church and fleeing the country to enjoy the confusion created by a shooting that made people think that he was assassinated by another bandit, Chico Navalhada.

During the time that he was away from the city, Roque was considered a saint and martyr of Asa Branca, as if he had been assassinated while defending the church from looting by Navalhada. Upon his return from Europe, uncultured and a millionaire (from the gold stolen from the church), Roque discovered that his image had become the commercial and spiritual motor of life in the city. The impasse had been created: if the martyr did not die, if the saint was actually a thief, Asa Branca was about to lose its identity and its principal source of income – the tourism promoted around Roque Santeiro’s “miracle”, the sales of statues, medals and ex-votos of the “saint”. Roque needed to live clandestinely if he did not want to provoke a total “breakdown” in Asa Branca. But he was in search of his “roots”.

His enemies were the main “power brokers” of Asa Branca: the mayor Florindo Abelha, the farmer Francisco Malta (known as Sinhozinho Malta), the merchant Zé das Medalhas and the conservative priest (Hipólito), who aggregated their “herd” through an authoritarian imagery – preserved for public order (e.g. concealment of conflicts) – and of a salvationist imagery, supported by ideas of progress in the city. On the other hand, his protectors were the “liberal” priest (Albano); the owner of the hotel and brothel Matilde; and Porcina, the false widow of the false saint who was neither a saint nor dead and also the current the girlfriend of Sinhozinho Malta [1]

The revelation of the truth was reserved for the progressive line of the Catholic Church, represented by Albano, the “red priest”, in a clear allusion to the so called Theology of Liberation, whose main banner is that of class struggle and the shock between the oppressor and the oppressed. It was in episode 87, exhibited on October 2 1985, that the soap opera reached its climax.

Because it is in the hour of the great truth

That the people sometimes hide, and forget themselves

These verses were extracted from the song “Verdades e Mentiras” (Truth and Lies), composed by the duo Sá & Guarabyra especially for the soundtrack of the soap opera Roque Santeiro. Its entrance into history happened exactly at this peak. To liberate the city and destroy the myth, Priest Albano decides to end the farce and ring the city’s bell in the Cathedral in an attempt to gather the whole population in the main square, which was already in upheaval from the fire that took place in the city’s cinema during the exhibition of some scenes of the much waited for film about “Roque Santeiro”, which was being shot in Asa Branca. It is in this dramatic turn of events that the lunatic Beato Salu (Roque’s father), who is in a coma, “resurrects” (after one of Sinhozinho Malta’s body guards tries to assassinate him with an electrical shock when he discovers that his son is alive) and the people, faithful to the miracles of the false saint, instead of listening the truth, end up glorifying Roque Santeiro once again as the founding myth of Asa Branca.

Why does the ferocious face of lies brings us so much happiness?

“Roque Santeiro” took the soap opera away from the enclosed climate of an alcove, taking the narrative to the public square [2], through the reproduction of certain archetypes of our “Brazilianess”. The fictitious city of Asa Branca transformed itself into an allegoric stage, a sort of modern agora that nourished itself through the intelligent satire of Dias Gomes to discuss what we would do with our regained freedom after 20 years of dictatorship. The plot of the false martyr who returns to the city that projected him as a saint and which survived economically and ideologically from this belief, also summed up issues relating to the formation of a national character and the constitution of certain “founding myths” that still support the collective imagination as a means to resolve conflicts, contradictions and tensions that do not find ways of being resolved in reality.

According to Marilena Chauí, these myths are supported by the generalized belief that Brazil:

“1) is a gift of God and nature; 2) has a peaceful, orderly, generous, joyful and sensual population, even when it suffers; 3) is a country without prejudice, without discrimination of race and faith, which practices miscegenation as a fortifying pattern of race; 4) is a welcoming country for all of those wiling to work in it and, here, the only ones that do not succeed and progress are the ones that do not work, with no class discrimination, only the repudiation of laziness, which, as is known, is the mother of delinquency and violence; 5) is a ‘country of regional contrasts’ destined to an economic and cultural plurality”. [3]

Today, 30 years after the so-called “re-democratization”, our myths “are still the same and their appearances do not fool us”. Or do they fool us? What should we think when we are faced with the news that the current interim president called the press to cover him “picking up” his son from school in order to lighten up his popular image?

The end reserved for Roque Santeiro, who decides to leave Asa Branca, leaving Porcina with Sinhozinho Malta and the myth becoming truth, revealed that the “democratic opening” sounded more conservative than expected.

We crawl…

Frederico Pellachin has a Bachelor degree in Social Communication (Radio) from Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP). He is currently the coordinator of the communications and residency program of the Cultural Association Despina in Rio de Janeiro. He has maintained the blog “Na Trilha das Novelas” (On the Track of Soap Operas) for three years on the Canal Viva website, in it he attempts to critically investigate the stories of Brazilian teledramaturgy through its sound tracks. He is also a DJ and, together with Marina Marchesan, forms the duo Fina Estirpe DJ Ensemble, which is resident at Escritório Transfusão Noise Records, a space dedicated to independent music located in the historic centre of Rio de Janeiro.


[1] “A country on air – Histories of Brazilian TV in Three channels” – Alcir Henrique da Costa, Inamá Ferreira Simões, Maria Rita Kehl (Editora Brasiliense/Funarte, 1986)

[2]  “National Mania” – File on Roque Santeiro – J. Castello / C. Ajuz (Revista Istoé, 14.08.85, pg. 38)

[3] “Brazil: Founding myth and an authoritarian society” – Marilena Chauí (Editora Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2000)