The steamy love story that takes place in Gabriela was in and of itself unimportant to a historical understanding of Brazil in the early 20th Century. The turbulent setting of the film along with the complexities that Gabriela’s relationship represent are far more critical to analyzing the film in a historical context.
The theme of progress was a central point of conflict which drives to political subplot of the film. The small town had come to represent an uncomfortable union of the old guard and those who sought to replace them. While it is interesting that expansion of the harbor represented the goal of the so called “progressive” challenger, what is more important is how little the dynamics changed in its aftermath. The comments made at the ceremony were telling, it was not new, it was just different. As much as those challenging the old guard advocated industrialization, their goals were of a much simpler nature. The ceremony featured the installation of a different face, with the former loyalists doing nothing more than pledging themselves to their new leader.
It appears that industrial progress was more of a political tool than it was an overarching ideal of progress.
The film also shows the infringing modern society on a societal level. The drought had forced an integration of poor and rich in a rather revolutionary manner. Nacib’s relationship with his servant was certainly normal within society, however the ability of that relationship to grow into a formal marriage represented a new openness within Latin American culture. The intermingling of rich and poor was by no means a common occurrence, and the struggles found within that relationship demonstrated lingering societal prejudices. Outside of marriage, Gabriela and Nacib had a simple lustful relationship. But with marriage, Gabriela proved incapable of accepting the societal norms expected of a proper woman. The marriage was of force of division rather than union, and was only reconciled upon the relationship’s return to a primal nature.
Despite the failure of progress to allow for a true union of rich and poor, it did have an effect on the rule of law’s triumph over the archaic sense of honor. It was so frowned upon to not avenge a man’s honor that Nacib feared he would have to flee for not killing his wife. However his temperance was vindicated when he found out that the doctor had been convicted and imprisoned for killing his wife and the man who she was with. It was taken for granted that the doctor need not fear the law. His failure in the court of law was perhaps the most poignant example of progress overtaking the old order.
Gabriela represented a society in the midst of change rather than a society that had changed. The film beautifully portrayed the uncertainty of a community living in revolutionary times and its ability to sense change while failing to understand it.