In Brazilian soap opera, a shot heard round the city

A popular TV character is struck by a stray bullet, and Rio residents are up in arms over what it says about their home.

Fernanda Machado is going to die next week and no one here can do a thing to stop it.

Some have tried to prevent the inevitable: The city's tourism chiefs complained that her death would scare off visitors. Local commercial associations said it would cause sales to drop. The city even attempted to ban the fatal scene.

But it was no use. Fernanda, a character in Brazil's top-rated soap opera, will perish, the latest victim of a rare but very real phenomenon - the stray bullet.

In Rio, a city fixated on crime, frustrated by the government's inability to prevent it, and fascinated by soap operas, Ms. Machado's death has been major news.

"The majority of people who live here don't have to go to dangerous areas; they aren't affected by the violence," says Rubem Cesar Fernandes, head of the Viva Rio NGO and one of the men behind the "Rio, Put Down that Gun" disarmament campaign.

"The stray bullet has become a symbol of insecurity for those people.... It is a symbol of the spreading violence."

In this developing South American country, where televisions are more prevalent than refrigerators, what happens in the soap operas makes the newspapers, and what happens in the newspapers often finds its way into the soaps.

Almost two-thirds of Brazilians regularly tune in to a nightly soap. That's more than in any other country bar England, according to a 2000 study by the US research group Roper ASW.

And by far the most popular slot is currently held by the novela das oito, the prime-time soap opera that follows the nightly news on Brazil's biggest network, TV Globo.

Sometimes riveting, often dreadful, and always glamorous, the novela das oito forms the cornerstone of TV Globo's evening schedule. On a good night it can pull in more than 40 million viewers.

The latest, a tale of dysfunctional women who live and work in the upscale neighborhoods of Leblon and Barra da Tijuca, is called Mulheres Apaixonadas ("Women in Love").

Although the show features a colorful cast - including two lesbian schoolgirls, a woman so consumed by jealousy she stabbed her husband for flirting, and a young male model with a girlfriend old enough to be his mother - none of their dramas have provoked as much interest as Machado and her impending demise.

When the soap's author, Manoel Carlos, let it be known that the beautiful former prostitute would be hit by a stray bullet, an intense debate ensued.

The president of the tourism office expressed concern that the program would be sold overseas and leave foreign viewers with a distorted image of the city.

A top official with the Rio branch of the Organization of Brazilian Lawyers said it "would stigmatize Rio as a violent city."

And the man in charge of issuing permits for location shots refused to grant one to TV Globo, arguing that blocking off the streets would cause traffic jams - even though the city had already allowed the novela to shoot nearby.

The company got the go ahead to film only after Rio's mayor stepped in saying that to refuse was tantamount to censorship.

The disputed scene aired Saturday. But Machado will die next week, after hovering between life and death for several suspense-filled days.

The urbane and genial Mr. Carlos, who is famous in the competitive world of soaps for his intrepid broaching of the hot issues of the day, was delighted by the controversy over Machado's death.

A well-known face at Leblon's newsstands, coffee shops, and supermarkets, Carlos understands middle-class Cariocas - as residents of Rio are called - and knows they fear being hit by a stray bullet.

Although neither Carlos nor Mr. Fernandes can recall anyone ever being killed by a stray bullet in Leblon, a report from the Instituto DataBrasil earlier this year showed that being struck by a stray bullet is the second greatest fear among Cariocas, after being assaulted or robbed.

Carlos said he came up with the idea to kill Machado by wayward bullet after reading the tragic story of a 19-year old nursing student who was hit in the jaw while standing at the entrance to her university. The bullet, believed to have been fired from a nearby favela, lodged in the girl's head, rendering her paraplegic.

That incident, coming hot on the heels of several others in which cars were peppered by stray bullets as they drove a main highway that skirts Rio's favelas, was enough to prove the problem was worth including in his drama, Carlos says, despite protests from authorities.

"This is so real," says Carlos. "It's in the papers every day."

"It's hypocrisy to think that a stray bullet is going to harm the image of the city. What has caused controversy is that this is taking place in Leblon, a neighborhood considered a paradise. When this happens on the North Side, the rich don't care - it's [as relevant to them as] a war in Bosnia.... I simply want to show that people are wrong if they think that this is happening only far from them."

Many of the hundreds of people who turned out to watch the controversial scenes being filmed agree.

Dismissive of authorities who tried to ban the offending scenes and angry at the government's inability to make the city a safer place, they say officials need to pay more attention to the realities of life in "the Marvelous City."

One woman says they could start by watching "Women in Love."

"The soap opera is portraying the reality," says Marcela Faria, who took her daughter to see the scenes being filmed.

"Perhaps showing this on television will force the authorities into producing some results. Unfortunately, stray bullets are part of our reality. What they're doing now is not nearly enough."

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