On its surface the simple tale of a man falling in love with his cook and laundry girl despite himself, Gabriela has several complex layers of dominance and power relations in early twentieth-century Brazil. The most obvious of these is gender, although class and race divisions also play a role in the film.
Although the monarchy had collapsed decades before the film is set, and Brazil had officially begun a process of liberalization even earlier, Brazil of 1925 was caught between its colonial, monarchal past and the still-uncertain future. In the film, this liminal stage plays out among the changing attitudes of the townspeople to adultery, honor, and patriarchy, and on the microcosmic level, in the relationship between Gabriela and Nacib.
The heavy themes of female morality throughout the film are impossible to miss, from the early sequence of a “crime of passion” onward. Despite the calendar year, the Brazil portrayed in Gabriela is clinging to its roots, as evidenced by the readings, which reveal the prevalence of wife killing and what Chasteen describes as an “[endorsement of] liberalism in principle while embracing conservatism in practice.” Among sociopolitical changes, the white landed Brazilian males felt a need to reassert their dominance over fellow countrymen and women who were becoming newly autonomous and challenging control that was seen as the birthright of the elite.
As Caulfield and Besse rightly point out, a main component of wife killing was the shame and dishonor reflected on the husband rather than the wife. ”Prior to the abolition of slavery in 1888, honor was a characteristic that white men of the propertied classes attributed only to themselves, distinguishing themselves from the rest of the population. A fundamental aspect of male honor for the Brazilian planter class was patriarchal control of female sexuality,” Caulfield explains. The honorable response to adultery, or cuckolding, was to reassert dominance and control over the family and the state with an undeniable expression of masculinity.
In the film, this plays out in the experiences of other men in Nacib’s small town, with the early account of the Colonel killing his wife and her lover, and being assured he will be acquitted, while all the other men agree it was the right thing to do. As Nacib contemplates his own choices, he despairs, saying he must leave his home and bar because of the dishonor of not killing Gabriela and Tonico. He cites the case of another man, who let his wife live and eventually was forced from the community because everyone had lost any respect for him.
It is unclear in the film, however, whether Nacib is troubled because of his presumed love for Gabriela, or because of the changing morality of the town. As progress comes to Brazil, with the implied glorious march of positivism, Nacib is unable to slice Gabriela apart bit by bit as he has promised, and the murderous Colonel of the beginning is found guilty of murder, despite his justifications of passion and dishonor. While this would seem to end on a hopeful note, along with the decreased rates of wife killing as the twentieth century wore on, the overall objectification of women and culture of violence depicted in the film are hard to escape.