Gabriela is the story of a woman from the country who comes to a Brazilian city to escape the drought. She begins an affair with a barkeeper of Turkish/Italian descent and soon comes into conflict with the traditional gender roles the city society expects her to adhere to. Although the movie takes place after the Liberal/Conservative debates of the mid 19th Century, the philosophy of liberalism and the idol of progress permeate this film that takes place in the early 20th Century. However, although the film is about progress in Brazil, both economically and socially, most liberals would be aghast to claim Gabriela and her lover as champions of the liberal cause, even though the film maker clearly wants viewer to see the characters as signs of progress to come.
Gabriela herself is a strange choice for an enlightened female protagonist. She is poor, uneducated, and from the country. Unlike women like Gomez de Avellaneda or Goritti, Gabriela is not a woman of letters. In fact, she cannot even read, a fact her husband tries to keep hidden when they attend the movies, and Gabriela cannot read the subtitles. Not only is Gabriela uneducated, but she has no desire to improve herself, a CRUCIAL component of liberalism. When her husband suggests attending a poetry lecture (an event that must have been very similar to the salons of Goritti), Gabriela is totally uninterested, preferring to go to a lower class circus instead. When she is forced to attend, she can barely stay awake. She doesn’t even question the political climate around her, going to the Colonel to protect her friend but never questioning how the Colonels or her friend play into the larger climate that the men discuss at the bar. This type of disinterest in intellectual pursuits and the love of rural culture would have earned the rejection of the liberal elite. Not that Gabriela had much of a chance to start with. Because she is from the country, a place where the race of a person was in doubt, she would have been suspected of being mixed race. Both she had the bartender (who is Italian/Turkish descent) would have been rejected for not living up to the desirable European bloodlines that the Brazilian elites admired.
Gabriela’s liberation is not an intellectual feat then but a sexual, personal event. Although she engages in a traditional servant/employer affair, she enters into the affair willingly and with enthusiasm, taking control of her own sexuality. She does not feel ashamed of her behavior or sex but enjoys the entire experience. Although this free sexual behavior was in line with many liberal women from the 19th century, liberal males would reject her behavior as improper, leaving her without the approval of most of the liberal elites.
Although the bartender often forces Gabriela to be the enlightened wife he wants her to be, he would not be respected as a liberal man. His attitudes change from the beginning (where he believes adulterous women should be cut up into tiny pieces), but at the end he falls away from the liberal model of a family. During the “crimes of passion” crisis in Brazil, progressive men tried to stress the importance of marriage as a means for reproduction and derided any passion that existed without reason. “Passion without reason” seems to define the barkeeper’s entire affair with Gabriela. After trying to live up to the liberal standard of a proper marriage, the barkeeper annuls his marriage and then continues to carry on an affair with Gabriela outside of marriage, an unacceptable alternative to marriage-minded liberal elites. Just because the barkeeper doesn’t kill Gabriela doesn’t mean he fits into the liberal elite’s definition of an enlightened man, though he shows SIGNIFICANT progress in his attitudes towards women throughout the film. At the end of the film, Gabriela and her lover both recognize the other as individuals responsible for their own actions.
Ultimately, the writer behind Gabriela has a very different view of “progress” than liberals of the 19th and early 20th centuries did.