RIO DE JANEIRO – Curtain down, party's over. After four days and four nights of unfettered celebration, corpulent King Momo – the symbol of all the excesses of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival – has handed the keys to the city back to the mayor.
The wild mood of these "fat days" (the name comes from the eating frenzy that used to precede the sober fast of Lent) went on until the early morning hours this past Sunday, as the sumptuous processions of the six best samba schools paraded, for the second time in a week, in the Sambadrome.
The long ribbon of cement flanked by private boxes and grandstands is the work of star Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who – at 105 years old – was among the revelers this year.
Inside the samba stadium were more than 72,000 spectators, carried away by the song and dance. Outside were several million more, some 850,000 of them tourists who had come to get a taste of the world's greatest spectacle – one which has become part of the national "brand" of a proud Brazil -- as the delirious, disconcerting mirage played out in the Carioca streets in the center and southern districts of Rio.
The show this year was exceptional. Thirteen samba schools paraded and were then put through the critical wringer by 40 juries comprised of intellectuals, artists and specialists chosen by the LIESA, the all-powerful league of samba schools. Since its creation in 1984, the body has developed and refined the already severe selection criteria of which there are 10, including originality of theme and general harmony of each parade. Judging is a difficult task, and many are the juries who have thrown in the towel rather than face the pressure from the street, the samba schools, not to mention the sponsors. Financing often comes from the gaming industry mafia. Then there's the press, and television – led by giant Globo, which owns the broadcasting rights.
The 2012 edition was pronounced a contemporary pop triumph after the win of the Unidos da Tijuca -- one of the oldest samba schools, which for the past several years has been under the direction of Paulo Barros. An enfant terrible of the Sambadrome, this carnavalesco -- "artistic director of the parade" – is known for his innovative talent, For years, however, his avant-garde approach put him at odds with most of the juries, who tend to favor tradition over the new. In 2004, Barros caused a still-talked-about sensation with an aesthetics-challenging human float that was shaped like a DNA chain. He finished second.
Always plenty of anecdotes
This volubility on the part of one and all may in fact be where the full myth of Carnival unfurls. It makes itself felt in the organization, the floats, the behavior, the roles from gurus and stars to the small timers, the aging dancers, the ad hoc street experts on the history of the samba schools, parades past and present.
And there is no lack of Carnival anecdotes. The arrest last week of a man named Paulo Rogerio de Souza Paz continues to fill newspaper columns. Although the police had been hunting him, the well-known drug trafficker couldn't resist the call of Carnival. In the Duque de Caxias district on the outskirts of town, where he had been hiding out since late 2010 when police invaded one of the favelas he controlled, Souza Paz left the house he'd taken refuge in to take part in street parade. The police picked him up before he even had time to slip on the wig a friend had bought for him.
Less amusing – in São Paulo, trouble broke out at the Anhembi Sambadrome as local rankings were being announced. Supporters of several samba schools interrupted the ceremony and set fire to a float. Coverage by Globo TV shows a man climbing onstage and appropriating several envelopes containing grades given by the jury. The man tore the envelopes up as he fled and threw the pieces into a porta potty. Five people were arrested in conjunction with the incident.
And among intellectual circles, Carnival once again provided an opportunity to wax eloquent on the uncomfortable realities and idiosyncrasies of modern Brazilian society. A researcher at Spirito Santo, Rio's state university, criticized paraders in southern districts as mainly "rich, bourgeois-bohemian and white" people who hired black scavengers to pick up cans and other refuse in the wake of the parade. And then, there were the words of Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz of the University of Săo Paulo, who sees the celebration as a "suspending of family, social, racial or sexual conflict ... under a veil of collective enthusiasm." Well spotted. Curtain please.
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Photo – Leandro's World Tour