Brazilian Movies and the Joy of Killing

     Brazilian Movies and the 
Joy of Killing

    Films which make a
    spectacle of violence make difficult the
    discussion which they intend to stimulate. In Brazil, in addition
    to the influence of the American film, we have the influence
    of the "Globo standard of quality" for 30 years. Both have
    made the public extremely demanding in terms of realism.
    by: Maria
    Rita Kehl

    I must begin with a categorical statement: every image has a potential for
    violence. Now I will try to explain. An image has an extraordinary power to
    communicate. If every sign is a placeholder for something absent, an image
    is what is closest to the thing itself.

    The more mimetic the image,
    the greater its power in this regard. If this is already the case for representational
    painting and photography, what can be said of the power of cinematographic
    images to represent the real?

    We are looking at living
    people, acting and speaking like we do, in environments which, depending on
    the intention of the director, can be identical to those we are familiar with.

    The critic can—or
    rather, ought to—problematize the pretensions of naturalism in the cinema;
    but one cannot minimize the impact of these films on the spectator. The cinematographic
    image which is presented from a realist perspective is that which most resembles,
    for those who are watching it, an exact translation of aspects of life.

    What is the violence of
    this impact? The violence which pertains to all the formations of the imagination.
    The imagination is the psychic terrain of stable significations. The image
    translates the thing as if it were the expression of its truth.

    The imagination, as Freud
    writes in a text about the unconscious, is the field of the "primary
    and true object relations". It is formed before human contact with the
    real is mediated by the word. If the real invades us in a traumatic way, imaginary
    representations are our most primitive resources for dealing with this invasion.

    They supply us with a
    matrix of "understanding" (the quotes are necessary) which is prior
    to thought; for the rest of our lives, when we see familiar images, we feel
    comfortably relieved of the responsibility of thinking.

    As if they presented us
    with the plenitude of the real, relieved of both its mystery and its traumatic
    effect; the real translated into its own image. The imagination, in this sense,
    relieves of our lack. Our lack of the thing and our lack of truth. It is a
    field of certainty and of totalizing illusions.

    We don’t have to go far
    to understand that the imagination is the field upon which we construct the
    protective fortress of narcissism. It is the field of the identities which
    sustain the mirage of being. The field in which all human identifications
    are produced through a mirroring effect.

    We cannot do without the
    imagination. One cannot live in the world without believing, most of the time,
    that things "are the way they are", i.e., they are as they present
    themselves to us in our imagination.

    One cannot live in the
    absence of meaning, in the significant’s discretion, in the pure symbolic
    dimensions—which by the way is the fundamental dimension of thought.
    The imagination is essential to the functioning of the psyche. On the other
    hand, it is also not possible to live completely dominated by its totalizing

    Image and Violence

    This is because the comforting
    power of the image is directly proportional to its violence. Since in the
    terrain in which things "are the way they are", all that humans
    can do is adjust to them.

    In the terrain in which
    thinking can be dispensed with, Hannah Arendt would say, humans can be dispensed
    with as well; and where humans are dispensable, violence easily dominates
    social links.

    I am referring to gratuitous
    violence, violence as the predominating way in which one reacts to the presence
    of the other, in facing the disagreements and conflicts which the other brings
    to us. If the imagination is the field which structures the fortress of narcissism
    of the ego, the relation to the other in terms of the imagination will inevitably
    be one of paranoia.

    In a narcissistic society,
    the other always represents a threat of invasion. I want to emphasize this
    fundamental aspect: in a society predominantly organized by the logic of images,
    the relation to the other is marked by paranoia.

    The other aspect of the
    violence of the imagination is that of violence as the expression of a feeling
    of impotence, of the futility of men confronting a reality which is presented
    as totalitarian through the force of the image.

    The facility with which
    the image presents us with a version of the real is directly proportional
    to the oppression that this imagined real, void of contradiction, produces
    in us.

    I wrote that it is not
    possible to live completely dominated by the totalizing effect of the image.
    If all dimensions of social life were presented to us as accomplished facts,
    from the point of view of "that is the way it is", the resulting
    conformism would be so crushing, so oppressive, that it would make human creativity

    Continuing a little farther
    down the path opened by Arendt, man is different from nature because of his
    infinite capacity for creation, of "giving rise to that which does not
    exist", of producing something new. Nature conserves, reproduces, perpetuates;
    man, unnaturally, invents, begins anew. In a world stabilized by the force
    of the image, there is no where to begin anew.

    And so, in all societies,
    power makes use of spectacle to consolidate its places in the hearts of its
    subjects. Spectacle is much more efficient in stabilizing power than force
    of arms. It is capable of endowing power with visibility, making it convincing,
    consisting, necessary.

    Power as Drama

    From the Roman emperors
    to the absolute monarchs, from Hitler to Stalin, from Bush to Lula, power
    has always depended on a healthy dose of theater, a great effort of imagination
    in order to become stabilized, in spite of the incompatibility between the
    fascination of publicity and the aridity of political negotiation, Or perhaps
    precisely for this reason.

    In all periods, power
    projected itself by images; but our period is the only one capable of producing
    images on an industrial scale, with the possibility of distributing them around
    the planet. The only one capable of producing images in all areas of social
    life, images simultaneous with events, translations of the real published
    and transmitted so quickly that image and reality, trauma and meaning become
    confused in the perceptions of the spectator.

    In all periods power is
    translated into images, but our epoch is the only one in which the central
    axis of power, which is no longer politics, but capital, is concentrated above
    all in the places where images are produced and distributed.

    The image is capable of
    supplying to poor humans forsaken in the arbitrary realm of language at least
    two modalities of enjoyment. The enjoyment of meaning, which takes place at
    the moment that the wandering signifier stops to meet the image of the thing.

    The enjoyment of meaning
    explains why dream and fantasy have, in psychoanalysis, the task of realizing
    desires. Desire is not realized in meeting a real object, but in meeting its

    The representation of
    a desire by its signifiers would already be sufficient for its realization;
    but the encounter with the image potentializes this little pleasure, gives
    it the consistency of a thing, an appearance of reality that is comforting
    and extremely pleasing. "That’s it!" the subject of the desire says
    upon meeting its imaginary representation.

    The other type of enjoyment
    provided by the image, which is an unfolding of the first, is the enjoyment
    of identification. I wrote immediately above that the imagination is the field
    where illusions of identity are constructed, which are formed by means of

    Identity is an illusion
    that sustains us. No one is "identical" to himself, nor to the group
    of meanings that represent him—name, profession, gender etc.—but
    the creation of a stable field of identifications resolves, even if precariously,
    our questions about who we are.

    The imagination is the
    field of these identifications. The presence of the body of the other, of
    the look, of the expressions of the other has more impact for the psyche than
    our own existence. The image of the other has more "existence" for
    me than I do myself.

    This is why it causes
    jealousy, writes Lacan, an "existential" jealousy, which is not
    to be confused with the jealousy which we feel when faced with the loss of
    a love object. Jealousy for our own image, overshadowed by the presence of
    the image of the other. What follows, and repairs this loss, is identification.
    "That is what I am!", is what the poor ego feels, destabilized in
    the face of the force of the image of the other.

    If this takes place in
    our daily interactions with our peers, what can be said about the fulgurating
    images produced by the cultural industry. Images from the cinema, from television,
    from billboards, present themselves to us dressed in another kind of "aura"
    which is not to be confused with the aura which emanates from works of art.

    At the axis of production,
    the industrialized image is merchandise, clad with the shine of the fetish,
    beneath which is hidden the excess value, the time expropriated from the men
    who worked to produced it. At the point of consumption, the aura of the objects
    from the cultural industry is produced by the thousands and millions of looks
    which these objects attract.

    Unlike the solitary experience
    which an encounter with a work of art, in its strange singularity, can supply,
    the encounter with an object of the industrialized culture brings us directly
    to the space where "they all" are. The value of an image is directly
    proportional to this effect of social covalidation of its power of truth.

    To see the film that "they
    all" are going to see, to watch the TV series with the highest rating,
    are not only way of including the anonymous dweller in the mass society in
    the imaginary terms which rule social life. They are also the means by which
    elements are produced for the identifications which subjectively homogenize

    The identification with
    the industrialized image is a broadened form of the same phallic enjoyment
    which takes place in other processes of identification. Broadened, because
    the image which attracts the eyes of "them all", functions as the
    face of power. It is our eyes, multiplied by the thousands, which create the
    aura of the industrialized image. It fascinates us to the exact degree by
    which it reproduces our alienation.

    Cinema and Industrialized

    Before directly addressing
    the question of Brazilian cinema, a caveat: not all industrialized images
    work in the same way. Let us take the cinema of Godard, for example: he works
    with his images based on a different logic.

    In Godard, the esthetic
    enjoyment produced by the cinematographic image is not on the same order as
    the production of identifications; he seems, moreover, to work on purpose
    against the game of mirrors which makes identification possible, above all
    in his films produced at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the
    twenty-first century.

    His refusal to present
    the actors in close-up, the scant illumination of most of the scenes, the
    way in which the dialogue and the images are at cross purposes, which prevents
    us from knowing "who says what", are resources which work against
    the mechanisms by which the public identifies with the characters. And after
    all, who are the "characters" in Godard’s most recent films?

    I dare to say that for
    Godard images are not composed according to laws of full visibility, of the
    production of meaning, of realistic effect, which govern the imagination;
    in Godard images have a symbolic function. They are like signifiers which
    combine so as to produce, not signification, but mystery. Godard’s films are
    closer to abstract than to figurative painting.

    Another ethics of the
    image is possible in the cinema—as Glauber Rocha also proved as well.
    But this ethics is certainly not that of the major movie industry, the ethics
    of the "happy meeting" between art and capital.

    The Brazilian cinema of
    the beginning of the twentieth century is perhaps the most powerful ever produced
    in Brazil, not only in terms of the potency of the images but also in terms
    of its impact on society.

    They are films which deal
    with wretchedness, urban violence, exclusion, the corruption of the elites,
    injustice, abuses of power, the lack of the most elementary human rights,

    Films which seek, whether
    with humor or drama, to alert society to these problems. Or which seek, at
    a minimum, to contribute to making it possible to think about them, to put
    the violence of poverty on the imaginary map of Brazil of the elites—that
    is, the elites which go to the cinema.

    The greater part of these
    films have made a strong impact nationally and internationally. I don’t mean
    to minimize them by labeling them as "cinema de denúncia (cinema
    of accusation)", nor do I like the expression "cosmética
    da fome (cosmetic of hunger)", coined by Ivana Bentes, because the artistic
    quality of this harvest of films surpasses these clichés—the best
    of them do not represent misery with make up.

    Perhaps they even emphasize
    the horror too much. What I would like to discuss is the problematical effect
    of discussing violence by means of images of violence.

    Need for Realism

    I fear that the films
    which make a spectacle of violence make difficult the discussion which they
    intend to stimulate. In Brazil, in addition to the strong influence of the
    American film industry, we have been under the influence of the "Globo
    standard of quality" for thirty years.

    Both have made the public
    extremely demanding as far as the "realism" of the production is
    concerned, and the result is to dissuade film directors from seeking other
    experimental possibilities in dealing with the image.

    "Reality", in
    contemporary cinema, must pass everything through the strainer of visibility.
    Following this logic of spectacle we would say (thinking of Guy Débord),
    that only that which can be fully visible exists, is part of the "real".

    Human reality is always
    the result of the language which we use in order to approach it. "Reality
    is a convention of light" was the title of an article which I wrote on
    the film "Lúcio Flávio, passageiro da agonia", by
    Hector Babenco, for a master’s level course which I did with com Ismail Xavier,
    in 1980.

    The danger of abuse of
    explicitly violent images is that it includes violence among the terms of
    the language which constructs society’s sense of what is normal and everyday

    Since the eighties, it
    was necessary for Brazilian cinema to blot out all traces of the esthetics
    of the Cinema Novo—which also had proposed a different ethics for the
    relationship between image and social violence—so that it might finally
    become a cinema for the masses.

    Another problem of violence
    as spectacle, which is increased by the realistic treatment of the image,
    is that it undoes a large part of the ethical effect of these films, thus
    producing some important "side effects".

    The most obvious is the
    raising of our level of emotional tolerance as far as violence is concerned.
    The continual exposure of our sensibility to scenes of horror, to the sight
    of the suffering of our fellow human beings, to the contemplation of bodies
    which are mistreated, wounded, shattered, ends by leaving us relatively indifferent.

    A vicious circle is created:
    to the degree that we become accustomed to darker scenes, the film industry
    calls on even more violent and frightening special effects.

    It is clear that any sort
    of "consciousness-raising against violence", if such a thing ever
    existed, has already been replaced by the enjoyment of the violence which
    the film intends to decry.

    And moreover, these images
    invite the spectator to enjoy the violence; in a society governed by the pleasure
    imperative, as contemporary market-driven societies are, the enjoyment of
    violence is the most immediate response to the violence of the imperative
    of enjoyment.

    The Charm of Violence

    Secondly, the public comes
    to identify with the violent characters themselves, as well as having an unconscious
    fascination with the acts of violence, which are associated in these narratives
    with characteristics of power, boldness, force, courage, in contexts in which
    it is only when they are translated into violent acts that these human qualities
    are able of producing any kind of transformation.

    It would be unfair to
    say that cinema or television produce the social violence which torments Brazilian
    life. I think it is more appropriate to say they participate in the same logic
    that produces this violence. The economic coercion which is at the base of
    production for cinema and television impedes, or at least makes it difficult
    for another logic to replace it.

    I would need to turn the
    screw a few more times to show that the logic of violence, in the end, is
    the same as the logic of the concentration of capital. For the moment I do
    not have all the means necessary to execute this theoretical pirouette.

    In conclusion, I want
    to mention quickly some films produced in the last two years which, in spite
    of the fact that they cannot avoid the problems mentioned above, show some
    attempts to develop en ethics of approaching the problem of social violence.

    O Invasor, by Beto
    Brant (2001), relativizes the impact of violence through the use of irony.
    In addition to this, it dislocates the focus of the narrative, finding the
    origin of violence not in the underworld from where it is commonly believed
    to originate, but in the ferocious competition and corruption of the elites.

    Brant’s film throws out
    some bait to catch the uncautious viewer. As soon as we see the trailer we
    think we know where the violence will be coming from: Anísio, the hired
    killer played by Paulo Miklos, appears in quick and menacing cuts, with an
    evil glare, the hard lines of his face lit so as to make them look even harder,
    a cruel smile, the imaginary "parabelo" pointed at the camera (read:
    the public): cláclá!

    Back to Normal Life

    But our expectations about
    the cruelty of the hired killer are not confirmed. Once he has done the "job"
    for which he was hired, Anísio invades the life of his bourgeois partners,
    who are hoping to return to normalcy after the crime.

    As if having an irksome
    partner killed was a sort of temporary fix, an exceptional thing for difficult
    moments, after which one can return, unstained, to the democratic institutions
    of life: family, clubs, school, business.

    It is just that there
    is no longer normality to return to: the invader does not invade the life
    of his accomplices to make them hellish, but because he wants to be bourgeois
    like them. Like Hegel’s slave, Anísio returns in order to teach the
    entrepreneurs (his masters) who they truly are.

    An inglorious task, like
    all teaching. The entrepreneurs/killers do not want to see themselves in the
    killer they hired. The killer, for his part, discovers that the entrepreneurs’
    life fits him like a glove. He conquers the heart of the adolescent daughter
    of the victim.

    He appears at the company,
    and pretends that he works there. He enters, he stays. We, in the audience,
    expect that the violence will continue to escalate. When will Anisio get tougher?
    When will heads begin to roll?

    But this is not an American
    film. It is not Cape Fear. Not Fatal Attraction. This film will
    not satiate our desire to see Ivan (Marco Ricca), the businessman who regrets
    what he has done, blow Anísio’s brains out, nor will it try to morally
    justify our murderous impulses.

    Very reluctantly, we begin
    to understand that the invader is not the most violent character in the film.
    He is only the ugliest character. He is only the poorest.

    The roots of the violence:
    they are where they have always been, with the elites. In the lack of scruples
    justified by the logic of capital. In impunity. In greed.

    And moreover: violence
    is, principally, to be found in the yearnings of everyone, adolescents, adults,
    poor, rich for unlimited, unending enjoyment, pleasure. We see no shots in
    the film, no blood, no beatings, no clubbings.

    The most violent and disturbing
    scenes are the parties to which the rich adolescent brings her new boyfriend.
    There, high on Ecstasy, the young people from the Jardins excitedly act out
    the sound and the fury of the city, which the security guards hired by their
    parents are working hard to keep outside.

    State Violence

    Already in City of
    God (2002) by Fernando Meirelles, the matrix of the violence was the action
    of the state which removed by force the favelados from Zona Sul of
    Rio de Janeiro, in the sixties, in order to drop them into shacks constructed
    in a hurry on an arid piece of land, unsupplied with the minimal conditions
    of city life, far from the workplaces of the residents, without paved roads,
    electricity, sanitation, transport.

    The state invented Cidade
    de Deus and radicalized the marginality of its inhabitants, moved there, like
    undesirable trash. Social violence has its origin in segregation, which is
    already denounced at the opening of the film.

    It is just that the speed
    of the images, a speed more violent than its content (and it is for this reason
    that the film captivated Brazilian adolescents raised on television) makes
    us forget this essential link.

    In City of God,
    as in the film by Beto Brant, the majority of murders take place off screen.
    But one does not need to see mutilated bodies to experience the horror.

    The fear on the character’s
    faces, the limitless cruelty of Zé Pequeno—whom we come to hate
    within minutes—the desperate crying of the child condemned to be shot,
    the nervous, terrorized pulse of the film—a film in accelerated flight,
    masterfully tense—all this includes the spectator in the violence which
    it intends to demonstrate.

    The fight between the
    two groups of traffickers becomes so tense, so threatening, that by the end
    we are waiting for the climax of the death of the terrible Zé Pequeno.
    The spectator is swallowed by the logic of the violence. We want to explode
    with it. Only the execution of the criminal will redeem us.

    Unlike O Invasor,
    which by force of irony prevents us from enjoying the violence, City of
    God calls us to participate in it in our imaginations. We are all the
    potential exterminators of Zé Pequeno. And so, I am forced to paraphrase
    Eugênio Bucci in his crônica for Jornal do Brasil:
    "what a magnificent film; what a revolting life".

    Carandiru (2002),
    by Hector Babenco, continues the more conventional style of the director,
    following Lúcio Flávio and Pixote, from 1977 and
    1980 respectively.

    Faithful to the book by
    Dráuzio Varela, Carandiru offers us a critique of oppression
    tempered by comforting doses of cordiality. In flashbacks by the prisoners
    the institutional violence seems bearable, laden with affection, almost sweet,
    until the scenes of the massacre spoil our mood.

    We could argue that the
    cordiality "humanizes" the characters, brings the prisoners closer
    to the public—which is true. It is more likely for the middle class viewer
    to identify with Babenco’s bandits than with those of Meirelles. "Here
    everyone is innocent, doctor", says the veteran Seu Chico (Milton Gonçalves)
    to the recently arrived doctor.

    In fact, it seems that
    the only agent of violence in Carandiru is the prison itself. At the
    end, after the scenes of the massacre, the horror is newly counterbalanced
    by the Olympian posture of the doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), before the
    public has had time to weep for the dead.

    Strangely, this film,
    which has the rare grandeur of a Brazilian epic, ends by placing a balm on
    the wound that it helped to open. "Patience, life is like this",
    the complacent smile of Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos seems to say as he leaves
    the prison, days after the massacre.

    Frustrating Expectations

    Finally, I want to mention
    a production from Pernambuco: this is Amarelo Manga (2003), by the
    novice Cláudio Assis. It is a film which, like O Invasor, does
    not fulfill its promise. It frustrates our expectations, forged by watching
    hundreds of similar films, that there will be violent outcomes for the various
    tense scenes which it presents us with.

    I beg your pardon for
    having forgotten the names of the characters; I will refer to the actors instead.
    The first part of the film makes us thing that the jealous, grumpy butcher
    (Chico Diaz) is going to run someone through with his butcher knife: his unfaithful
    wife (Dira Paes), his lover, or the homosexual (Mathew Nachtergale) who is
    in love with him.

    The conflict between the
    owner of the bar (Leona Cavali) and the necrophilic guest at the hotel (Jonas
    Bloch) also seems likely to end in bloodshed. The characters do not "follow
    through" on their threats. The anticlimax to which the film leads truly
    frustrates, in the psychoanalytic sense, our expectation of consummating the

    Amarelo Manga tries,
    perhaps a little timidly, to approach social violence with a different logic
    in mind, which eliminates the climax of the viewer watching traditional "action"
    scenes, the function of which is to relieve the tension produced by the narrative.

    In this film, social barbarity
    is not presented by means of shootings and beatings, but in the form of a
    stagnation without the possibility of hope for the future, in which all of
    us, both characters and public, are immersed. This
    is not something condescending.

    The fundamental violence
    in this film cannot be reduced to any temporizing; it is found in the poverty
    of the settings, the filth stuck to all the old walls, in the apathy, in the
    empty expressions of the Indians who eat crackers while watching television
    in the filthy lounge of the Texas Hotel.

    It is in the lack of air
    for the characters. "First comes the day", says Leona Cavalli at
    the opening of the film, before, in a foul temper, opening the same filthy
    bar as always. "Then everything happens…it doesn’t stop…and then
    night comes. That is the best part. Then another day, and it all begins again"….."…

    Perhaps the difference
    between Amarelo Manga and the other three films which I have addressed
    is that the characters live in the historical center of Recife which, though
    it is falling to pieces, is still part of the neural circuit of the city.

    City as Character

    Unlike the favelados
    of City of God, the inhabitants of the periphery of São Paulo in O
    Invasor and the prison inmates in Carandiru, the characters in
    Amarelo Manga belong to the city; they have a territory. The center
    of Recife, moreover, is the great character in the film.

    We see its colors, its
    food, the talk on the sidewalks, we hear the sonic mix of dozens of radios
    tuned to different stations—we can almost sense the half-rotten smell
    of the city, coming from the garbage on the street mixed with the exhalations
    of the swamp.

    In the midst of the debris
    of the decaying city, the characters preserve a shred of dignity: they belong
    to the city and the city belongs to them. The contrast between Amarelo
    Manga and the preceding films make us ask whether the most unbearable
    and cruelest violence is not that of segregation.

    But this is not an effect
    of the film itself: it is the effect of the comparison between it and the
    others. In closing, a suggestion for the next article: it would be worth doing
    a comparative analysis of Ônibus 174 and O Bandido da Luz
    Vermelha, emphasizing the role of journalistic narrative—television
    in the 2002 film, police programs on the radio in the 1968 film—in the
    structuring of the "reception" of the crimes which actually happened
    and were fictionally reconstructed by José Padilha in 2002 and Rogério
    Sganzerla in 1968.

    It is true that in Ônibus
    174 the television reportage contributes to the realistic treatment of
    the narrative, while the radio commentary in Sganzerla’s Bandido is
    more than ironic: it is the central element in the construction of the debauched
    language of the film.

    But the comparison is
    justified because both films bring into question the participation of the
    cultural industry in the dissemination of violence by making it not a newsworthy
    "happening", but a style of approaching reality.

    Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, writer and poet, the author of three
    books of poetry and the books of essays A mínima diferença—o
    masculino e o feminino na cultura. She was born in Campinas, São
    Paulo state, in 1951 and is a doctor of clinical psychology. You can reach
    her emailing

    Translated from
    the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and
    culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French,
    Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. Comments welcome at

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    Brazil: 9,000 Strong Police Force to Secure Arab Summit

    Around 9 thousand police and security personnel will be mobilized to guarantee the security ...