At precisely 9 every weeknight, the life of every self-respecting Brazilian screeches to a blissful halt.

From the pampas of Rio grande do sul to the remotest Amazonian hamlet, people bolt the door, take the phone off the hook, tune out the impedimenta of workday life and tune in their TVs to "Asa Branca" -- an imaginary village assembled out of plywood fac,ades, 25 plastic-leafed trees, a splash of stage paint and a web of romance and intrigue.

This is the world of Globo Television's resoundingly successful "Roque Santeiro" (Saint Roque), the soap opera -- "novela" in Brazilian parlance -- that is breaking all audience records and cementing even firmer the presence of Latin America's largest television empire into the foundations of life in this continent-sized nation.

The TV drama, adapted from a stage play, tells of a false hero who supposedly was martyred in a battle against a band of thieves who sacked a tiny, bucolic town in the sertao, or backlands. But the hero turns out to be a mere coward who fled before marauders only to reappear 17 years later to a town that has sainted him. His reappearance terrifies the town fathers, who have built a statue, their reputations and a booming tourist industry out of the false myth.

The novela is a saucy, irreverent farce that pokes fun at the church, the merchant class and city politicians -- a recipe that didn't agree with the palate of Brazil's military regime, which censored the original script in 1975.

Now, under the new civilian government sworn in last March, the novela is viewed nightly by 60 million Brazilians. For years, Brazilians have been wild about their novelas, which, unlike endless American soap operas, are four- to six-month dramas, each with a beginning, middle and end. The giant television network, Globo, Latin America's largest, is the source of virtually all novelas, which are aired not only in Brazil but in 130 other countries.

Some Globo novelas have outdrawn American programming in many countries. In Poland, more people watched Globo's "Dancing Days" than the competing "Shogun," and the same novela outdrew competing fare in Miami.

Most of the stories have been melodramas featuring the desires and angst of the Brazilian elite, shot in plushy upholstered salons or on pearl-white beaches.

"In most novelas," says political scientist and former TV commentator Alexandre de Barros, "everyone is rich, no one works, and life proceeds from home, to the dance hall, to the beach, and so on."

Gradually some scriptwriters have introduced more earthy themes, and by far the most successful of them has been "Roque Santeiro." Set far from bustling business centers or the glistening tourist cities, "Roque Santeiro" chronicles life in the Brazilian backlands. Actors speak with a regional twang instead of with refined big city intonations, and the novela is scored entirely with Brazilian music.

"For the first time, a novela offers an accessible theme, one in which the great majority of Brazilians can see itself reflected," says Aguinaldo Silva, who coscripted the current version of the Globo novela.

More than this, while most novelas peak in the ratings and then sputter to a finish, "Roque Santeiro" has maintained its lofty ratings ever since it first aired more than three months ago. It also counts among ardent fans President Jose Sarney, Sa o Paulo Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns and even Armando Falcao, the justice minister who banned it from the air 10 years ago.

The drama that has delighted viewers has also been the despair of the dons of Brazilian night life. In fact, damage reports are alarming. On a recent Saturday evening, Rio's prestigous nouvelle cuisine restaurant, Clube Gourmet, served a measly four tables until 10 p.m., when "Roque Santeiro" ends. When the restaurant finally began to fill, the late-night diners arrived imitating the novela's leading characters.

A popular cinema showing Peter Wier's "Witness" reports that box-office receipts have fallen up to 40 percent during the usual bread-and-butter sessions from 8 to 10 p.m.

With an eye on such perils, one leading movie mogul here decided to postpone the opening of "King of Rio," a touted film about the powerful gambling mafia, in three capitals. The impresario expected the film to draw 350,000 easily in Rio but confessed in the Jornal do Brasil's culture pages that he'll be lucky to get half that number.

The distraction got so bad in the populous regional capital of Recife that candidates in a heated mayoral race went out and hired famed folk singers for campaign rallies. Problem was, the voters were staying away in droves to watch "Roque Santeiro."

Noted playwright Dias Gomes likes to tell the story of when he tried in vain to hail a cab in front of a five-star hotel in Sa o Paulo. Frantic, he implored the doorman, who informed him that all the drivers had gone off to watch "Roque Santeiro" -- the novela he himself originally wrote. "Now, at last, I finally understand why the novela was banned and denounced as a threat to national security," he jokes.

There was even a story making the rounds that the tremendous "Roque Santeiro" audience was in part responsible for a recent power overload that blacked out seven of Brazil's most populous states.

That tale was probably apocryphal, but perhaps in the end, it doesn't really matter. After all, the drama about the power of myth seems destined to become one of its own.