In the early 20th century, Brazil was struggling to find ways in which to establish itself as a prominent player on the world stage. As explained by John Charles Chasteen, in order to become a more valuable trading partner for nations around the globe, Brazil felt the need to modernize its people and for them this meant becoming more European. This Europeanization required substantial restructuring of the Brazilian societal structure, particularly in regards to relations between the sexes. The evolution of attitudes regarding fidelity and the feminine role in marriage is addressed in the Portuguese film Gabriela.
According to Susan K. Besse, as a holdover of Portuguese colonial rule “a married man who discovered his wife in the act of committing adultery had the legal right to kill both her and her suitor, and the social custom of doing so did not die with the formal abrogation of this ‘right.’” The film establishes this early when Nacib overhears the colonels who run the city discussing how one of them has murdered his wife and her lover and will suffer no punishment for the crime. This attitude was fostered by the police journal Vida Policial which often wrote articles about gender roles in society. Sueann Caulfield explains that the journal charged women with teaching moral standards to society and that failing in this function brought about degenerate behavior in others. She further states that “while men were portrayed as capable of aggression and violence, it was female behavior that, in failing to create a moral environment, provoked the rise of these evil instincts.” Since women were required to maintain the moral standard, the failure of the colonel’s wife to do so drove him to the murder and thus he cannot be held culpable. Responsibility for the crime rests solely on the shoulders of the colonel’s adulterous wife and it was his duty to eliminate her from society in order to help restore order.
This practice did not begin to lose favor until the advent of the CBHS in 1925. Besse explains that the perceived rise in spousal homicide was cause for concern because “not only did homicide within a family unit reveal the dysfunction of individual families, but more important, it tarnished Brazil’s reputation as a ‘civilized’ nation … husband-wife relationships had to be ‘modernized,’ acquiring at least a veneer of equality and reciprocity.” In the view of the CBHS, the image of an uncivilized society would have jeopardized foreign economic relations at a time when Brazil was looking to expand its role in world trade. In Gabriela the change in spousal relationships was shown to progress at the same rate as the modernization of Brazil. Nacib refused to murder Gabriela, at the time his wife, after finding her in bed with his best friend at a time when Brazil was making improvements to its infrastructure, and as Brazil began to gain prominence, a relationship in which a man condoning his wife’s affair was accepted by society, the relationship even being referred to as “modern”.