Jonathan Schlefer, Boston Globe | 22.08.2004 00:23 | Venezuela
Global Must-See TV
Telenovelas, Spanish-language melodramas from south of the border, are the ultimate crossover phenomenon. Their addictive formula -- a woman's agonizing struggle ending in redemption -- attracts 2 billion viewers worldwide.
By Jonathan Schlefer, 1/4/2004
Matilde Penalver y Beristain, a young woman raised in the 19th-century Mexican aristocracy, gasps. The sight of her husband, Manuel, lying in agony, a bullet lodged in his chest, complicates her romantic dilemma. Forced to marry him for money because of family financial ruin and countless family intrigues, Matilde was determined to hate him. But how can you really hate a guy for little worse than standard male obtuseness? Blissfully innocent of the family intrigues, Manuel somehow manages to convince himself that Matilde loves him. He loves her.
The problem stands by the bedroom door: The man Matilde originally wanted to marry has, under false pretenses, insinuated himself into the household as Manuel's estate manager. Matilde turns toward that man, tears for her husband competing with guilt for shedding them. What's a girl to do? And there is another complication: The servant Antonia has eyes for Manuel and once got a good smooch from him, even if he was drunk at the time.
"Manuel! Manuel!" Antonia cries, caressing his forehead. "Out!" snaps Matilde, yanking her up. "We must clean his wound." Cat fight. The rivals -- now the love-torn Matilde is struggling for her husband -- spill half of the water intended to wash the wound.
Another Mexican telenovela, or television novel (the usual but inapt translation is soap opera), moves a step nearer its conclusion: as the title says, Un Amor Real (A True Love). Broadcast in Mexico this past summer and fall and headed for the United States on the Spanish-language Univision network, it is widely considered one of the best of the genre. This is no cheap studio production. Televisa, the producer, built a whole 19th-century town to film it. The title sequences alone range from a formal waltz, as if from the pages of Tolstoy -- couples in exquisite period attire weaving kaleidoscopic patterns -- to the lonely couple, Matilde and Manuel, standing by the colonial gate of a hacienda in Hidalgo, Mexico.
Latin American telenovelas are carving an extraordinary presence across this country and around the world. In addition to Univision, you can watch them on two other Spanish-language networks in the United States: Telemundo and Azteca America (the last not yet on cable in New England but available via the Dish Network).
In heavily Hispanic cities such as Los Angeles, novela hits sometimes get higher prime-time ratings than any English-language network. In New England, 50,000 or more Hispanic households watch popular novelas such as El Privilegio de Amar (The Privilege to Love) or Salome each evening, and up to 100,000 watch the climactic final episodes, according to WUNI, the local Univision station. This translates into some 300,000 viewers, the station says, or a 40 percent rating among Hispanics. When WUNI went off the air temporarily the afternoon before the final episode of Esmeralda, desperate viewers swamped the switchboard.
And you need not just watch novelas at home. In Jamaica Plain, you can dine at the Latino Restaurant or get your hair done at the Davis Beauty Salon without missing an episode. And you can read about the stars in magazines such as TVyNovelas or TeleRevista, available at many CVS drugstores.
Not only in the Americas but in Russia, China, Romania, Morocco, Afghanistan -- well over 100 countries around the world, in all -- dubbed or subtitled Novelas reach some 2 billion viewers globally, by industry estimates. While the Mexican producer Televisa is the biggest, others -- such as TV Globo in Brazil, TV Azteca in Mexico, and several more in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Argentina -- at times achieve comparable export successes.
In 1992, one of the first smash global hits, Los Ricos Tam Bien Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), captured some 100 million viewers in Russia alone. Farm workers would abandon tractors at midday and rush inside to catch the latest about the determined young woman forging her destiny in Mexico City, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Despite the ever-present Virgin of Guadalupe, that dark-skinned patron saint of Mexico -- or other Christian symbols in productions from other Latin nations -- novelas have gained audience shares of 80 percent in Indonesia, the nation with the largest Muslim population in the world.
As prime-time entertainment, even daily US soaps do not rival this remarkable Hispanic form of cultural globalization. For example, in the Czech Republic, English-language soaps have only achieved market shares of a few percent, while telenovelas may garner 50 percent of viewers. While daily US soaps are produced for the domestic daytime market, telenovelas aim for worldwide, prime-time audiences. And while American actors see roles in daily soaps as slumming, novela actors are the biggest stars across Latin America: Adela Noriega (who plays Matilde) and Fernando Colunga (who plays Manuel) are among a score of the best-known faces on Latino television. And their fame spreads beyond Latin America: When Veronica Castro and other Mexican telenovela stars went to China, a former Mexican ambassador recalls, they filled sports stadiums, had to be escorted around by police, and blocked traffic across Beijing. Novela performers are huge celebrities, comparable to Oscar-winning stars in the United States; at the same time, they establish far more intimacy with audiences than Hollywood actors do. Visiting viewers' living rooms nightly, they become almost part of the family.
What explains novelas' staggering global appeal, and just what are they, anyway?
Like regular novels, telenovelas have a beginning, middle, and end; they do not run on indefinitely like soaps. Each plays daily Monday through Friday for a few months to a year, often in prime time, until the right couple is united, good defeats evil, and the last credits run down the screen. Audiences may miss friends and enemies who have pursued intrigues in their living rooms nightly, but there is always another novela.
In many early telenovelas (broadcasts began in the late 1950s), a poor Cinderella struggled against adversity and finally married her Prince Charming. The prince, it must be said, rarely did much of anything. Not surprisingly, this plot catered to poor women. Still, today, if you ask a Mexican man what he thinks of novelas, he may burst into nervous laughter. But the audience of Amor Real was evenly divided between the sexes and spread across social classes, according to the producer, Carla Estrada.
Novelas still follow a formula as precise as the waltz in the opening sequences of Amor Real. Though there are many subplots, the main plot must be about an impossible love. It need no longer be between Cinderella and her prince -- Matilde is an aristocrat and Manuel a bastard son -- but the female lead remains the driving protagonista. Why? "If you see a man suffer in a novela, you don't care," shrugs novela director Ernesto Alonso. "If you see a woman suffer, you feel her pain." The couple, separated by social chasms, evildoers' plots, and their own hesitations, must endure unimaginable suffering before finally overcoming the impossible.
Telenovelas always reward good and punish evil. In the better ones, characters may be torn by conflict, as Matilde is. Good people may do bad things, for which they suffer. Bad people can be redeemed, after purgatory on earth. The legal system may be just a corrupt backdrop of life, jailing the innocent and the guilty, too, for good measure. But the Virgin of Guadalupe never errs. Justice must be done on this earth.
Alongside the search for love and justice is a search for lost identity. Deceived about their true origins, characters must ask, as Argentine communications professor Nora Mazziotti observes: Who are my parents? Where is my child? Who, finally, am I? In the end, not just marriage and fortune but self-discovery provide "just reparation" for the unimaginable suffering.
Clearly, the worldwide appeal of Novelas transcends their often vivid cultural heritage. A good Mexican novela, for instance, brightly paints that nation's cultural traditions on the screen. Colors are gaudy, facial expressions distorted as in popular art sold in street markets, says Mexico City television critic and journalist Alvaro Cueva. The acting no more ought to be classically correct than street art ought to follow the rules of perspective.
Yet Mexican culture, powerfully shaped by Aztecs, Mayans, and other indigenous peoples, does not seem crucial to the novelas' global success. Haresh Shah, the editor of TV Tip Serial in the Czech Republic, notes that some Argentine novelas are as popular as Mexican, though Argentina's thoroughly European culture could hardly be more different.
The warm display of Latin emotions from both nations is surely indispensable, says Shah: "The older generation of Czechs were never sure who might rat on them. Even 13 years after the fall of communism, they are not able to express their real feelings. Novelas give them an outlet to feel their emotions." But English-language soap operas have powerful emotions, too.
Novelas' special force lies in their traditional folkloric themes and, inseparable from those themes, "an almost religious possibility of justifying existence," as the Mexico City novela writer Cuauhtemoc Blanco says. Despite characters' unimaginable suffering and fate's obscure turns, novelas pose the hope that ethical conduct will be rewarded on earth.
Alvaro Cueva goes further. At the novela's core, he says in an interview, is "human passion that is like the passion of Christ. Characters fall and get up, fall and get up, and after falling many times, they achieve glory." Christ here is a woman, and hers is a most earthbound glory: love and fortune. Yet it must include a religious ceremony, as Cueva says, usually church marriage. Perhaps the protagonista has been raped or even willingly had sex before marriage (but only for love). No matter: She deserves to be dressed in white.
If Christianity is so embedded in novelas, why do they appeal to audiences in Indonesia or the Persian Gulf? Broadcasters there may cut the most blatant Christian images, and viewers accept what remains as a foreign setting, something they are no more forced to adopt than eating tacos. But the framework of an underlying moral order amid a chaotic world translates across languages, cultures, and religions. Two billion viewers harbor strikingly similar hopes. The "clash of civilizations" may not go nearly so deep as supposed.
Increasingly, novelas have been exploited as conduits for powerful social and political messages. In the not-so-distant days when the Mexican ruling party won rigged elections by landslides, it was exquisitely skilled at manipulating popular sentiment, not least through novelas. The Interior Ministry, which managed the political machine and secret police, used them to help keep people in line. It had a representative at every recording session, recalls distinguished novela and stage actress Angelica Aragon. Novelas could not discuss corruption or protests, she says: "Characters had their gloomier days, but in the end, happiness and well-being prevailed."
Novelas served more constructive purposes, too. Luis Echeverria, who rose from secretary of Interior to become president of Mexico in 1970, launched a didactic series under the producer Miguel Sabido to promote literacy, family planning in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and even women's rights. Come With Me in 1974-75 is credited with persuading some 800,000 Mexicans to sign up for adult education. Daughter of Nobody faced the plight of street children.
In seemingly innocuous ways at first, Aragon herself sought to advance feminism. "Even the very traditional Cinderella telenovela is still about a woman," she says. "Though she marries the prince, and we know that's not true, we're talking about women's issues." Aragon would omit lines she considered false, such as "I can't stand to tell my friends about personal matters, because all women are gossips." She says she just asked the prompter to delete such prejudicial statements. The representatives from Interior did not pay enough attention even to notice.
Recent novelas have shown women as powerful entrepreneurs, told realistic stories about rape, and depicted sympathetic homosexual characters. Plots in which gorgeous young women get AIDS have underlined the dangers of the virus.
Aragon starred in the powerful Mirada de Mujer (A Woman's Glance) as well as a sequel that is running this winter in the United States. TV Azteca, Televisa's feisty and sometimes iconoclastic rival, billed its Mirada as "not for men because it treats both sexes as equal." Obviously essential viewing for every man. Battling Mexican tradition, even her own mother and daughters -- but supported by her son -- Maria Ines (Aragon) leaves an adulterous, deceitful husband, rebuilds her life, and takes a younger lover. The head of the National Council of Women said Mirada did more for Mexican women's self-esteem in the 10 months it ran than her own council had in 10 years. And it had an impact outside Mexico. In December 2001, Time magazine ran a note that Kabul had been liberated from the Taliban, life was returning to normal, normal meant watching television, and one of the favorite shows was Mirada de Mujer.
The theme of corruption, once banned, burst to life in the mid-1990s in TV Azteca's riveting Nada Personal (Nothing Personal), about a political system waging personal vendettas. A shadowy figure resembling former president Carlos Salinas, and shown only in shadowy profile, directed drug traffic and murders. One was never sure if the novela was copying newspaper reports or it was the other way around. Nothing Personal had to be toned down, but even more cautious novelas can reflect political hopes. In the final episodes of a famous Televisa novela, the protagonista is dramatically acquitted by a jury of her peers. Mexico does not have jury trials.
Novelas reach such a vast audience, principally in developing nations, because they are so cheap to produce, and stations pay so little to broadcast them. The Latino trade magazine TVMAS estimates that Mexico produces 2,800 hours of novelas each year -- enough programming to run nine hours a day, five days a week -- for $200 million, no more than the 1997 movie Titanic alone cost to produce. Networks pay prices for novelas ranging from nothing in Afghanistan (Mirada was stolen off an Indian satellite) to a few hundred dollars per hour in Eastern Europe and a few thousand per hour in the United States. Profits are good -- TVMAS estimates that Mexican novelas generate annual revenues of $600 million, but actors are not nearly as rich as they are famous. A distinguished actor in a title role will occupy a comfortable, middle-class Mexico City apartment, but nothing like the fabulous novela world of mansions, servants, and private jets that his or her character may inhabit.
Novelas' global importance is not their economic scale but their powerful cultural attraction -- and danger. They offer hope. "If I see Veronica Castro in The Rich Also Cry, she could be Mexican, French, or African," says novela writer Blanco. "But she suffers during her whole life, and in the end she becomes the senora of the household, respected, loved. And I want to believe in that. I have to believe in that, because tomorrow I must get out of bed and get on with life, no matter how hard it is."
The other side of novelas' miraculous personal victories can be social defeatism. "We know life isn't like telenovelas, but we wish it were," says TV critic Cueva. "Mexico's culture is one of suffering, coupled with hope for change. Things will change magically: Our team will win the World Cup. We will finally put our economic crisis behind. The new administration will make everything better. Those are always illusions. Telenovelas speak of a static society. There is always another novela, but it is always the same story."
It seems little accident that novelas have achieved some of their greatest successes amid national upheaval: Russia's social devastation, Indonesia's terrible economic crisis. A Serbian woman was watching the Mexican novela Esmeralda, The New York Times reported, when a bomb destroyed her house. Fortunately, she was unharmed.
Audiences cherish Novelas' blind hope because today's world is so harsh, because the human condition is so uncertain.
Jonathan Schlefer, Boston Globe