Judge Victor Valdivia has been called a son many times, but of another word that doesn't really mean carnival.
In this family, blood ties are more blood than ties.
Hijos Del Carnaval (Sons of the Carnival) marks HBO Latino's dramatic series debut in Brazil, a collaboration with Brazilian TV to make a serialized show in the same vein as HBO shows in the United States. That's an interesting idea and the series' setting shows potential. Sadly, Hijos Del Carnaval: Seasons One and Two promises far more than it delivers, squandering some great ideas in wrongheaded execution.
Facts of the Case
Anesio Gebara (Jece Valadão, The Embodiment of Evil) is the aging owner of one of Brazil's top samba academies but is also the kingpin of a large criminal empire that includes an underground gambling ring. When he entrusts his interests to his oldest son Anhesino (Felipe Camargo), he is shocked when Anhesino commits suicide rather than face his growing financial and personal problems. Now Anesio must decide which of his three remaining sons will take over his businesses, even though the three—legitimate businessman Claudinho (Enrique Diaz), rakish musician Brown (Rodrigo Dos Santos, Bus 174), and faithful bodyguard Nilo (Thogun, City of Men)—could not be more different from one another. As the three sons jockey for position, their rivalry comes to a head as growing evidence of Anhesino's greed and recklessness threatens to bring the entire family down. This four-disc set contains all thirteen episodes that make up the series' first two seasons.
Like HBO Latino's other dramatic series Capadocia, Hijos Del Carnaval takes the basic template of an existing U.S. HBO series and rewrites it to fit a Latin American culture. Capadocia reworked Oz to a women's prison, while Hijos Del Carnaval is loosely patterned on The Sopranos. There are differences, however. One difference is that Capadocia encompassed issues of class, gender, and corruption, while Hijos Del Carnaval is not interested in any social or political commentary, preferring to stick to basic genre storytelling. Another difference, unfortunately, is that Capadocia, as imperfect as it was, was at least partially successful. Hijos Del Carnaval, sorry to say, is disappointingly pedestrian.
The fundamental flaw with Hijos Del Carnaval is that it tries too hard. There are too many subplots, too many convolutions, too many stylized sequences, too many shots that serve as heavy handed symbolism. Each season lasts only six or seven episodes and each episode is only 50 or so minutes but the show is so exhausting to watch that you'll struggle to get through it. This unrelenting pace would be difficult enough but what's truly disappointing is that all of these storylines and ideas ultimately add up to nothing more than generic gangster and soap opera plots.
Consider the episodes that make up the first season. In them we meet Anesio, the ruthless family patriarch who runs a samba academy in Rio de Janeiro. This alone would have made for a fascinating story—in Brazil, the competition to get samba academies to participate in the annual festival is so cutthroat that it's rife with corruption and violence. That, however, wasn't enough for this series, so Anesio also runs an underground gambling ring, an illegal taxi service, and other unstated criminal activities. The underground gambling ring encompasses a numbers lottery that involves animal symbols, so characters have dreams with animals in them that serve as foreshadowing of plot developments in each episode. Then there are the three surviving sons: Claudinho, the married suburban businessman who Anesio views as a weakling; Brown, the samba drummer and bandleader who fathers multiple children by different women; and Nilo, Anesio's faithful bodyguard who carries out his every order. Oh, and both Brown and Nilo are half-black, products of Anesio's relationships with different black women and are therefore illegitimate and technically unrecognized (although it's understood that everyone knows who they really are). Also, Anhesino's suicide was provoked by one of Anesio's oldest friends and bitterest rivals, a fellow aging gangster who pretends to be Anesio's friend but is really gunning to replace him.
This is all so pointlessly complicated. One or two of these ideas would have been more than enough for a series but cramming all of them in means that there's no room to breathe for the audience. What's even worse is that it also means that none of them are developed in any clever or significant way. There are a lot of portentous inserts of animals that are meant to symbolize characters and their fates, but then they never really add up to anything. The notion of the three sons, two of them illegitimate and biracial, might have led in a fascinating look at racism in Brazilian society but instead it ends up as warmed-over version of The Godfather: each son represents one side of the patriarch's personality, but none are completely capable of replacing him. The gambling empire results in a whole lot of shots of old men sitting around tables smoking cigars and arguing about money; who really cares at this point? The samba school is supposed to be Anesio's pride and joy, yet the only time he seems to care is when Brown tries out a new drum rhythm during one rehearsal—otherwise he completely ignores it. All of this jumping around between stories and characters is immensely tiring to watch, especially when very little of it is noteworthy. Why bother cramming so much into a series if it isn't going to mean anything?
By the beginning of the second season, some changes needed to be made after the actor who played Anesio died in real life just after the first season finished shooting. So in the second season, the show focuses exclusively on the sons, with results not much better than in the first one. Claudinho, the "good" son, makes the transformation from respectable citizen to cunning, coldblooded racketeer—sound familiar? The sons begin to get involved with each others' wives and girlfriends (none of whom, by the way, are written as anything other than plot devices), which is the staple of soap operas everywhere. Isn't this series supposed to be better than this? Just because the writing is so complicated, though, doesn't make it any less predictable. When Anesio's rival taunts Claudinho by saying that he isn't anywhere near the man his father was, how do you guess Claudinho responds? When Brown has an affair with Nilo's girlfriend, how long do you think it takes for her to announce that she's pregnant? How many pointless story complications can one series cram into barely seven episodes? If you can make it all the way to the end, you're a truly dedicated viewer, which in many ways, is much more than this series deserves.
The 2.35:1 transfer is shot to look grainy and desaturated to capture the gritty feel of the series. Why it's not anamorphic, however, is inexplicable in this day and age. The Dolby Stereo soundtrack is acceptable, although a surround mix would have been nice. There are no extras at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At least the cast does what it can with the writing. Thogun is the standout, since the series is essentially told from his point of view, but all of the main cast members do some solid work, although so much of it is wasted on subpar storytelling. You will also get a feel for just how much work goes into creating the annual Carnival in Rio, including getting to hear some great Brazilian music. If only the rest of the series was as pleasant to watch.
It's disappointing that this is such a mediocre series because the world of samba schools is one that's ripe for examination. Hijos Del Carnaval could have been an interesting series that addresses the issues surrounding the corruption and exploitation that frequently occurs during Carnival, but instead it's content to rehash gangster movie and series clichés. There are some mildly compelling parts scattered about but it's too much of a chore to sit through the hamfisted and unoriginal ones to get to them. Unless you're obsessed with Brazilian TV series, feel free to pass this one by.
Guilty of being too bloated and derivative.
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