A glittering parade of samba schools strutted through Brazil’s capital as performers blended political protests with a return to the country’s roots.
Two million people took to the streets as part of the festival, which has occurred since the 1400s.
More than 70,000 people sang at the top of their voices Monday night as the final seven elite samba schools unveiled their flamboyant costumes and giant decorated floats and sashayed past enthusiastic neighborhood locals in the city’s Sambadrome.
The first school of 2,500 dancers and musicians sashayed past the crowds and judges at a reasonable hour Monday evening, but the last only did so at the crack of dawn this morning.
As they do every year, Brazilians briefly forgot their woes – including the economic crisis, bitter political divisions, massive corruption scandals and a sky-high murder rate – and instead focused on showcasing the world’s biggest party.
The fiesta serves as a cathartic coming together for the city, reflecting the joy, suffering and dreams of its denizens.
‘It’s another way of crying. And protesting: we are alive!’ said an editorial in the daily O Globo newspaper on Monday.
This year’s crowd included celebrities such as Brazil and PSG star Neymar, back in his homeland receiving treatment for a foot injury, who was seen at the stadium with funk singer Anita.
Rio de Janeiro had been battered by torrential summer rains in the hours leading up to the start of the parade on Sunday before the skies cleared just as the first samba school entered the spotlight.
Sunday saw a display of spectacular floats featuring giant flamboyant birds, slave ships, the Roman Colosseum in addition to the traditional scantily clad dancers in exotic headdresses throbbing to the deafening beat of drum bands.
But once again the carnival served as canvas for political messages, sending up the ‘circus’ of the political capital Brasilia or condemning widespread corruption and a growing intolerance towards the black and LGBT communities.
Those messages appeared to be directed pointedly at Bolsonaro, notorious before the election for race-baiting, sexist and homophobic comments.
The parade Monday night continued that satirical theme. The prestigious Mangueira school caused a stir with a theme of popular heroes from Brazilian history who do not feature in school textbooks, mostly from the traditionally neglected black and indigenous communities.
The highlight of that parade was a homage to Marielle Franco, a black city councilor and human rights activist from one of the city’s poor favela neighborhoods who was shot dead last year.
Another highly anticipated display was from the Portela school, which holds a record 22 carnival wins and partnered French fashion guru Jean-Paul Gaultier to design its dancers’ costumes.
It highlighted Brazil’s roots by celebrating the memory of Clara Nunes, an icon of the 1970s samba scene and the first artist to defend the rights of African-Brazilian religions.
The show also celebrated the resilience of the sambas schools themselves, whose subsidies from the city have been slashed since Marcelo Crivella, a former Evangelical pastor, became mayor in 2017.
The carnival has also tamped down its traditional feel of debauchery, which normally draws around 1.5 million visitors to the ‘Marvelous City’, including foreign tourists with their much-needed cash.
But for Jairo Machado, a dancer with the Beija-Flor samba school, it would take more than budget cuts or torrential rain to dampen the legendary party-goers’ enthusiasm.
‘Despite the weak investment by the city, the schools have overcome all that, they have managed to throw a good carnival,’ he said.
The judges are to announce the winner of the samba contest tomorrow and will base their decision on three criteria: the inventiveness of the floats, the theme of parade, and the quality of the dancing in the sambadrome.
For the schools, that means months of work to make the costumes, build the floats, rehearse their dance steps and learn their songs, making winning a huge prize for a school and its local community.