RIO DE JANEIRO — In the telenovela (soap opera) the "Cattle King," ranching mogul Bruno Mazenga falls in love with a beautiful field hand only to discover that she's his long-lost cousin. Meanwhile, Mazenga's bottle-blond wife, Lea, is betraying him with a muscle-bound gigolo, who is having a side affair with a rich socialite who favors plastic halter dresses.
Is this any way to send a political message? It is if you are one of an estimated 70 million viewers watching in Brazil.
Aside from the de rigueur love interests and intrigues, TV Globo's "Cattle King" ("Rei do Gado") made a strong and highly controversial statement about one of Brazil's thorniest political issues: unfair distribution of land. Its call for urgent and meaningful agrarian reform led landowners to threaten to sue the author. But public interest grew so strong that Brazil's Congress was forced to act, passing a hefty tax on unproductive lands.
Only TV Globo, South America's largest television company and the world's fourth-largest network, could turn agrarian reform into a household term. And it is having a similar impact with other social issues.
Brazilian novelas now speak vividly about themes that touch peoples' daily lives such as corruption, violence, impunity, street chil-dren, holy rollers, machismo, red tape, drugs, and ineffectual government and police.
Ever since a 21-year military dictatorship that imposed strict censorship ended in 1985, Brazilian soap operas have opted more and more for what director Luiz Fernando Carvalho calls a mix of "primitive reality with a breath of fantasy."
"It's not enough anymore to show who stole whose boyfriend and who will inherit a large fortune," says Glria Pires, who has appeared in 18 novelas during a 25-year career and is one of Brazil's best actresses.
There are also informal public-service bulletins in which characters talk about such subjects as the importance of one's vote in a democracy or breast-feeding during the first six months of a baby's life. Globo officials even say they are considering a "department of social marketing" to gather suggestions for socially sensitive plots.
Each night between 6 and 10 p.m., millions choose between three well-crafted soaps, which often use special effects, on-location scenery, and an original soundtrack mixed with the hottest new hits (the "Cattle King" soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies). Globo soaps attract the nation's best actors, some of whom - like Sonia Braga - have gone on to fame in Hollywood.
The prime-time soaps like "Cattle King" attract the largest audience. The "8 O'Clock Novela" - a misnomer since it normally begins between 8:30 and 9 p.m. - costs $100,000 per 50-minute episode and can last for as many as eight months.
The prime-time soap is watched by so many people that electric companies are strained to capacity and population experts say it has helped lower the nation's birthrate.
And it's become "a worldwide phenomenon," says Mr. Carvalho, "Cattle King" director, in between scenes at Globo's $120 million television complex set in a huge lot some 30 miles east of downtown Rio de Janeiro.
"When you have 70 million viewers nightly, you have to be very careful what you say," adds Benedito Ruy Barbosa, the writer of "Cattle King."
And it's no wonder. The influence of soap writers like Mr. Barbosa dwarfs that of priests in the world's most Roman Catholic country.
In 1971, when health ministry officials had trouble persuading residents in isolated regions to vaccinate their children, Barbosa included an episode in which an urban doctor persuaded a rural midwife to vaccinate the town's children in his soap "My Little Piece of Earth" ("Meu Pedacinho de Cho"), a romance set in a small Amazon town. The next day, thousands flooded rural clinics asking for the "novela vaccine."
In last year's "Heart Burst" ("Explode Corao"), author Glria Perez wrote a scene in which a small boy named Gugu disappears. His desperate mother winds up in a scene with real mothers who have been looking for their missing children for years at a weekly protest spot in downtown Rio. In subsequent weeks, Perez allowed each mother to show her child's photos to the cameras. By the novela's end, some 76 children had been reunited with their parents.
The popularity of Globo soaps, which are sold to 68 nations, earning the network $30 million annually in profits, has also caused some strange overseas incidents.
During the run of "Roque the Miracle Worker" ("Roque Santeiro"), a 1985 novela about corruption, impunity, and false prophets, scores of Cubans chose to flee the island by boat at the hour of the broadcast because they knew most police officials would be indoors watching. Ironically, Fidel Castro is a big fan, having invited Globo actors to visit him at his Havana presidential palace.
More recently, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's political machine placed novela star Ms. Pires's likeness in its party newspaper during last year's presidential campaign. Pires, who is well-known in Russia for her double role as good and evil twins in "Sand Women" ("Mulheres de Areia"), appeared with a caption criticizing Mr. Yeltsin's Communist opponent, who was rising in the polls. An irate Pires later hired attorneys to sue the party but gave up after she was told that she had little chance of winning.
Author Barbosa, a former journalist who has written 25 soaps, says he always wanted to write a novela centered around agrarian reform. He hinted at it in his 1993 novela "Reborn" ("Renascer") through a character named Tio Galinha (Chicken Sebastian). Tio, a poor illiterate peon, dreamed of owning his "own little piece of land" but died never having fulfilled his dream.
In "Cattle King," a crusading senator and a landless peasant leader try to make Chicken Tio's dream come true. Both believe that the poor have the right to invade idle lands on large estates without violence.
In Brazil's real world, the Landless Rural Workers' Union (MST), the nation's most powerful peasant movement fighting for agrarian reform, claims that Brazil has 195 million acres of fallow lands, properties that generally belong to wealthy farmers who live in cities and use the land for tax write-offs. MST, losing patience with the government's slow pace in redistributing lands to the poor while some 4 million families awaited government-promised reform, has blocked roads, torn down fences, and invaded large farms all over the nation.
In 1996, 50 landless peasants died in confrontations with ranchers or police. Yet the root of the problem remains: 90 percent of Brazil's land is owned by 20 percent of the population, while the poorest 40 percent owns just 1 percent.
"In my novelas, I try to create public awareness about such fundamental issues," Barbosa says. "This novela is a vehicle to bring the land question to a national forum. And its high ratings - thank God - meant viewers were rooting for the landless."
In the novela, Sen. Roberto Caxias (Carlos Vereza) was a politician that Mahatma Gandhi would have voted for. He shunned material wealth and lived in constant self-denial and was passionate about helping the poor. (See accompanying stories.)
Regino (Jackson Antunes) was a peasant leader who belonged to an MST-type group but was so moderate that he railed against that group's standard tactic of blocking highways to call attention to their plight. "Why annoy people who have nothing to do with our struggle?" he asked.
In many Brazilian soaps, reality is enhanced since it is an "open work," in which the author continues to write the stories even as episodes are going on the air, giving them the chance to insert actual events.
When police last year tried to arrest MST leader Jose Rainha "for forming a criminal group" and couldn't find him, they nabbed his activist wife, Diolinda, instead. In "Cattle King," when police couldn't find Regino, they dragged off his wife, Jacira (Ana Beatriz Nogueira), who just happened to sport a Diolinda-style haircut.
To be sure, some Brazilian novelas lack any socially redeeming purpose. In the 1991 soap "Vamp" ("Vampe"), a vampire with one fang turns his victims into one-fanged creatures of the night. In 1993 "Map of the Mine" ("O Mapa da Mina"), the heroine has a map to a secret treasure tattooed on her behind. And in the recent "Mutt" ("Vira-Lata"), a dog who understands Portuguese helps his owners out of ridiculous situations.
The Mexican formula
Carvalho, who admires the late Brazilian surrealist filmmaker Glauber Rocha, says many Brazilian soap writers are convinced that they cannot keep a serious topic like agrarian reform entertaining for 200-plus 50-minute chapters.
Instead, he says, they resort to the "classic Mexican formula, a ready-made product based on stereotypical characters that don't make the audience think."
According to Carvalho, that formula depicts the rich as glamorous macho characters and the poor as uncultured rabble who equate happiness with money and aspire to marry the boss's daughter.
"If I did that kind of soap, what message would it send to the majority of Brazilians?" he asks. "They would feel impotent. And who do you think are their real heroes: the guy fighting for land or the guy talking on a cellular phone?"
The linchpin: romance
Yet Barbosa concedes that every soap, regardless of its social message, has to contain a "great love story."
In "Cattle King," that story revolved around Bruno Mazenga (Antnio Fagundes) and Luana Berdinazi (Patrcia Pillar). Luana was an itinerant laborer who wanders from harvest to harvest living in temporary shacks. Cattle baron Mazenga met Luana after she joined Regino's group and invaded one of his properties. For both, it was love at first sight despite their political differences.
Ms. Pillar spent 15 days researching her role in So Paulo State, where she cut sugar cane with a machete and honed her rural accent.
"I didn't last more than 30 minutes cutting cane before my shoulder would give out," Pillar recalls. "But I was more concerned about listening to the women boia frias [peons] talk about their lack of basic necessities such as decent housing, education, and health."
Since "Cattle King" premired last June, the first-ever debate between landowners and landless was held in the Senate, and Congress passed a hefty tax at the end of last year on unproductive lands. In recent popularity polls, the MST has outpointed President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
"Without a doubt, 'Cattle King' opened up the debate about unproductive lands and agrarian reform," says Neuri Rossetto, a member of the MST national directorate. "It played an important role in winning sympathy for our movement."
The soap's cast of characters say they should get some credit.
"I hope that the Brazilian novela continues down this road, offering answers and influencing behavior," says veteran actor Raul Cortez, who played a wealthy landowner in the novela. "I like to think that we are helping Brazil's modernization."