Why do criminals in movies love Brazil?

  • Living
  • Monday, 09 Feb 2015

Ronald Biggs, one of the masterminds of the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Biggs escaped from a London prison in 1965 and lived in freedom in Brazil for decades. Photo: AFP

Every movie about criminals seems to end with them fleeing to Copacabana.

A long-established piece of wisdom in Hollywood says that if you have robbed a bank or sold war secrets to the enemy, or even if you’ve just embezzled some company funds, then you should pack your stuff and move to Brazil.

According to my brief detective work, perhaps the first film to reference the peculiar attraction that Brazil holds for international runaways was The Lavender Hill Mob, a 1951 British comedy starring Alec Guinness. His character steals one million pounds in gold from the Bank of England, melts the bars into miniature Eiffel Towers and comes “straight on to Rio de Janeiro. Gay, sprightly, land of mirth and social ease.”

A year later, the Hollywood drama 5 Fingers presented an ambitious British Embassy valet who decides to sell secrets to the Nazis. James Mason’s character intends to collect £200,000 in 12 weeks, and then dash into “a new life. A new name.”

Alongside his partner, a ruined countess portrayed by Danielle Darrieux, he plans to escape “the wars, the intrigues, fears,” and to become like the elegant man he once saw on the balcony of a Brazilian villa, high in the mountainside above the harbour. “He seemed close enough to touch, and yet he was beyond the reach of anyone.”

It’s not surprising that so many fictional stories revolve around characters fleeing to Brazil to escape the law. Today Brazil does have an extradition treaty with the United States, but it has been in effect only since 1964.

Ronald Biggs, one of the masterminds of the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Biggs escaped from a London prison in 1965 and lived in freedom in Brazil for decades. Photo: AFP

We had no similar treaty with Britain until 1997, thus allowing Ronald Biggs – who had a role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and escaped from a London prison in 1965 – to live in freedom in Brazil for decades.

As Tom Hanks’s character puts it in The Money Pit (1986): “Don’t they have any laws in Brazil? Don’t they have any police?” Then there’s the con artist, in Hot Millions (1968), who enters the country with a bag full of money.

When he gets to Customs, he opens the bag and says exactly what it contains – “money” – to which the officer just answers: “Enjoy your stay in Brazil.”

According to The Foreign Eye, a 2006 documentary by Lúcia Murat, more than 40 non-Brazilian movies involve outlaws expressing a desire to flee to Brazil.

Yet, only a few of them succeed. Perhaps the most famous example is Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968), in which Max Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, plan to take their million dollars and fly to Rio, but end up in prison instead.

If, over the years, these characters don’t look to Brazil because of its disreputable loose laws or reputation as a sunny paradise, they come searching for adventure in a “primitive” land, full of unknown dangers. They might refer to South America as if it were a single country, and mix up Brazil and Mexico.

In The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968), the diabolical mastermind Fu Manchu (played by Christopher Lee) ensconced himself in the Brazilian jungle and planned to use an ancient Incan poison in his evil plot to conquer the world. (Never mind that the Inca Empire was located in modern-day Peru.)

That same year, a sophisticated, handsome Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) gave a hint to Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway) about his final destination in The Thomas Crown Affair: samba, sugarloaf, jungle, piranha.

Little do they know.

When it comes to stereotypes, Brazil is above all an exotic, tropical wilderness full of beautiful women wearing small bikinis. Many outlaws dream about ending their lives on Copacabana Beach drinking piña coladas, just like the protagonist of Max Dugan Returns (1983).

In Brazil’s vast runaway filmography, Michael Keaton dances a samba after defrauding the lottery (The Squeeze, 1987), Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane disguise themselves as nuns to retire from their gangster jobs (Nuns On The Run, 1990), Val Kilmer and Kim Basinger flee here with US$3mil (The Real McCoy, 1993), and Kerry Fox buys a one-way ticket to Brazil after leaving her best friends to die (Shallow Grave, 1994).

For years, these paradise clichés remained remarkably consistent. Less than a decade ago, we had Philip Seymour Hoffman robbing from his own parents to fund his escape to Rio with his wife (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007), while the Hulk hides from the United States military in a Brazilian favela (The Incredible Hulk, 2008). A little later, Johnny Depp, as John Dillinger, planned to grab a plane to Caracas and then to Rio, “for some fun in the sun” (Public Enemies, 2009).

The most recent movie in this lineage is Fast Five (2011). It shows Vin Diesel’s character escaping from prison and then going to Rio in order to steal US$100mil from a corrupt businessman.

But this time, the image of Brazil has changed. It is depicted as a land of armed drug traffickers and easy women. Oddly, lots of people speak Spanish. One character says that everybody in Rio can be bought; another one calls the place a “hell-hole.”

From heaven to hell in just a few frames. – International New York Times

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