Rio On Location: Brazilian Carnival in the movies

Photo: Fran Mateus

The Brazilian Carnival (known simply as Carnaval in Brazilian Portuguese) is a luxury-filled, colorful and incredibly creative party. Over time, it has become popularly thought of as the biggest show on Earth. If, before traveling to Rio you would like to learn more about the evolution of this festival, my advice is to go on a tour through four movies that registered the party in different moments of history: It’s All True (a documentary with scenes from 1942), Black Orpheus (a 1959 drama), 007: Moonraker (a 1979 adventure film), and Rio (a 2011 computer animation). The first three portray the Carnival from the perspective of foreign directors, all of which were great admirers of the party; the latter, on the other hand, was directed by the Brazilian Carlos Saldanha, and offers a view into twenty-first century carnival parades.

Credits: RKO Studios - Paramount

Orson Welles was one of the first movie industry gringos to show up at the event. For shooting the documentary It’s All True, Welles and his crew arrived at Rio de Janeiro in the year of 1942 and shot scenes of the festivities taking place on the streets of downtown Rio, in the favelas and in the ballroom dance clubs. It got them so excited that the director ended up recreating a carnival ball inside the Urca casino (find out more about the casino in the “Hollywood Glamour” itinerary). Unfortunately, much of his movie was lost. The little that remained can be seen in the documentary made of it by some of Welles’s friends in the 1990s.  

Credits: Dispat Films

The American director knew quite well that the splendor of Carnaval owed much of its fame to the people living in needy neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. The French director Marcel Camus was also one to show the story of the carnival from this point of view, in his movie Black Orpheus. Camus was able to beautifully represent, through the tragic love story of Orpheus (Breno Mello) and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), the way the people living in the Morro da Babilônia (that is, Babylon Hill) prepared to support their community’s local samba school, “Unidos da Babilônia” (Babylon United) in the carnival parade, by spending their meager salaries on showy costumes – as many do until today. Back then, the party took place on the main streets of Rio, and the spectators could follow the parade on foot, on the sidewalks. The movie was based on the play Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of The Assumption”), by Vinicius de Moraes, who had himself been inspired by the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Credits: Eon Productions

Two decades after Camus made his movie, James Bond, in 007: Moonraker is seen walking around the same streets, while a samba school is parading. Due to the increasing number of people crowding the streets to watch the event, the city mayor decided to build a venue specifically designed for the Carnaval parades. The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was given the job of creating the original design for what was to become the Sambadrome of Rio de Janeiro.

Credits: Fox Animation

Founded in 1984, the Passarela do Samba (“Samba Runway”), as the Sambadrome is popularly called, can be seen in the computer animation Rio. In it, Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann) put on their blue-macaw costumes and enter the over-700-yard-long runway to look for Blu and Jewel. When you watch the movie, pay attention to the shapes and colors of the parading school – the theme of the school’s performance is birds, in reference to the main characters of the story, and there are many different sections distinguishable by the colors and forms of the costumes the people in each one of them has to wear, helping the spectators follow what the narrative of the parade.

You’ll find in Rio a representation of how the schools in the “Special Group” are formed. Each one is composed by the following categories: percussion, front commission, the couple playing Mestre-Sala and Porta-Bandeira (literally, the Master of the room and the Flag-bearer), distinct sections with gigantic allegorical floats (Linda actually parades on top of one of them, and does just fine with her American swing). On the Samba runway, the nearly four-thousand people that make up a school create an ensemble of unique beauty. Each and every move counts in the competition between schools. If, by any chance, a school shows up with an allegorical float as horrible as the one made by the smugglers in the movie, it will most likely be disqualified. Carnaval is a lot of fun, but not everything can be taken lightly.

Fran enjoying the Carnival
Extra: moments before entering the Sambadrome
Are you aware of what takes place before a samba school enters the runway? On the big night, the participants are placed in order of appearance, according to their costumes and the sections they belong to: whether they’re a part of the Front Commission, or if they’re in the middle section, if they’re the closing section, or on top of the Allegorical Floats, or underneath them, on the ground, or a part of the percussion section. Each school has approximately 80 minutes for their show, in which they must express their theme, their creativity, originality and enthusiasm, and all the participants must follow the time schedule. While the school waits for the order to commence, the instructors rehearse their samba one last time, correcting flaws in costumes, and organizing the order of appearance (each section must have a specific number of participants, according to the organization of the event). When they enter the Sambadrome, the joy and emotion of being there are intense, and make up for the hours of waiting for the revelers to show up, wearing costumes that, as the minutes go buy, seem to weigh more and more like tons (especially if the rain decides to join the party). It is a once – at least – in a lifetime experience!

The places to party:
Samba school rehearsals: they begin in September. The most visited schools are Portela, Salgueiro, Mangueira and Vila Isabel. To check out their addresses and rehearsal schedules, go to

Cidade do Samba (“Samba City”): this is where the “Special group” schools go to in order to get their costumes, instruments and allegorical floats made. The production reaches its peak between the months of November and February, the best time to be there. (R. Rivadávia Correia, 60, Gamboa;

Street Carnaval: this is a suggestion for those who want to enjoy the party in a more laid-back manner. The best-known “blocos”, that is, groups that lead the party down the open streets, with music and entertainment, go through Ipanema (“Banda de Ipanema” and “Simpatia é quase amor”), downtown (“Cordão do Bola Preta” and “Cordão do Boitatá”), Jardim Botânico (“Suvaco do Cristo”) and Santa Teresa (“Bloco das Carmelitas” and “Céu na Terra”). They usually take place during the weeks preceding the carnival. You can find out their schedules at visitor information centers around town.

The Sambadrome/Professor Darcy Ribeiro Runway: fit for 70 thousand spectators. You can go see the dress rehearsals that take place during the two weeks preceding the parade. The official party happens every year in the month of February or March (R. Marquês de Sapucaí, no number;



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