In Crimes of Passion: the Campaign Against Wife Killing in Brazil, 1910-1940, Susan Besse notes that while wife killing had been an ever present social custom, it accrued visibility and notoriety as a reprehensible social evil ostensibly to “moralize society” during the early, chaotic days of Brazilian industrialization (1989). Reflected in the film Gabriela is the era’s preoccupation with policing sexuality and gender, as well as concerns over industrialization.
Women’s bodies were treated as spaces to fasten moral values, fears, and anger, and if failing to uphold certain moral propriety, women were upbraided for setting into motion the “evil insticts” of men (Caulfield 1993). During the period of emerging industrialization with its growing bourgeois sentiments, control of this rapidly changing society was directed toward strengthening the nuclear family and substituting rationality for the passion engendered by nineteenth century Romanticism (Besse 1989). Gabriela begins the film as Nacib’s seductress, but at the urging of his friends, and compelled by their awareness of Gabriela’s attractions, Nacib enters into marriage as a way of ensuring his exclusive sexual access.
As evidenced by the preponderance of wife killings in Brazil, however, exclusivity could never be guaranteed and the issue of male honor as constructed around aggression, violence, and retribution becomes the point of frustration for Nacib after finding his wife, Gabriela, in bed with his friend. Cuckolded men were expected to react to this situation with brutality; at this point in the film, the audience has already become acquainted with the expected male response: Nacib having stumbled upon a couple shot dead by a cuckolded colonel. However, when faced with his own wife’s infidelity, Nacib did not wish to kill, only to strike at the adulterers in anger, but as Susan Besse notes, for this he would have been “scorned and disrespected, thrashed for ridicule, and wounded by the most burning irony” (1989). The expectation for male violence is reflected during Nacib’s discussion with a friend, in which he mentions the necessity of moving away, especially since another man was ridiculed in the past for reacting in a similar less grievous manner.
In a sense, Gabriela’s transformation from sensual and available seductress to stifled wife and victim of male aggression allows for a striking comprehension of Brazil’s preoccupation with policing sexuality (primarily female sexuality), and the importance of marriage and the nuclear family as compulsory to industrializing bourgeois Brazilian society. Gabriela’s new status as wife and virtual property of her husband stands in stark contrast to the freer and perhaps more egalitarian days of her past. However, stripping herself of certain cultural inscriptions of gender and proper female behavior after her expulsion from the house (e.g. no longer wearing tights, or even shoes), serves to challenge and flout proper femininity and social convention.
With industrialization, Brazil’s middle class feared social tumult and worked to “remold sexual practices and family life according to modern hygienic standards” (Besse 1989). While women decried the custom of wife killing, it persisted well into the 1970′s. Perhaps Gabriela, filmed in 1983, is a protest against the abuse and murder of women by men, fueled in part by a growing Brazilian feminism and political liberalization of the 1970′s.