The 1983 film Gabriela presents itself as a love story between a wealthy man and the damsel in distress that he takes into his home as a maid, but it contains strong underlying social commentary about the gender dynamic in early 1900s Brazil. Gabriela displays the gender, class, and race hierarchies that authors Susan K. Besse and Sueann Caulfield attribute to the ideologies left from colonial European powers that Latin America, Brazil in particular, clung to in order to create a national identity and promote themselves as an equal to their European counterparts.
One of the main themes of the film is the patriarchical structure in which the legislative and social order of the country was based. The best example of how patriarchy infiltrated both spheres of daily life in Brazil was the practice of wife killing, better known as a crime of passion. The film provides many different male perspectives on this custom. Mr. Nacib, the male lead, at first seems indifferent but later finds himself engaging in violence against his wife when he finds her cheating. The older society men vehemently approve of it and the masculinity it portrays. Finally, the contemporary, men who hope that the new port will bring economical and social progress and a stop to the wife killings from the west. The act of killing a cheating wife and her partner was a way for the husband to prove that he was not “cuckolded” and he was the master of his household. Susan K. Besse, author of Crimes of Passion: The Campaign Against Wife Killing in Brazil, 1910-1940, hypothesizes that “the rapid rise of urban industrial society weakend familial ties, by providing women with new aspirations and new options, thus heightening gender conflict…as men perceived that their ability to control the behavior of women through familiar channels was declining, the resort to violence probably occured more frequently.” (p 656) The fact that the killers were not prosecuted and the practice was expected and in many cases exhaulted points to the common social and legal acceptance of the patriarchical structure of post-colonial Latin American culture.
Another theme of this film is the male responsibilty for female behavior because of their superiority. As the film progresses we see that as the relationship between Gabrelia and Mr. Nacib progresses he grows more and more preoccupied with the way she dresses, acts in public, and is preceived by his peers. He no longer allows her to go to the bar and wait on its patrons, she dresses much more conservative (pinning her hair back and wearing shoes), and he does not allow her to go to the circus because it is not an activity meant for adults of their class standing. He is obsessed with transforming her from a maid to a housewife. This is a very important transformation if she is to be accepted into society because of the negative connotations associated with being a maid or domestic servant in Brazil. Sueann Caulfield, author of Getting Into Trouble: Dishonest Women, Modern Girls, and Women-Men in the Conceptual Language of “Vida Politica”, 1925-1927, states that the maid was defined as a category within the identity of prostitution and because 70% of all maids were women of color in Rio de Janerio this occupation and perception became associated with race. This male responsibility for female behavior came out of an effort to control the domestic sphere and the ones responsible the instilling moral values in society. If women were to fail at this role they were to be held responsible for the problems in society. (Caulfield p 153) Therefore, men, who were thought of as physically and intellectually superior, had the responsibility to society to keep women in line.