RIO DE JANEIRO — In an otherwise uplifting celebration of Brazilian culture, one part of Sunday's dress rehearsal for the Olympics opening ceremony struck some viewers as cringe-worthy: the moment when supermodel Gisele Bundchen got seemingly robbed by a black kid from the slums.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” said Fernando Alvares Salis, head of the communications department at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who was invited to see the rehearsal. “It’s got to be dropped.”
And it looks as if it will be.
The Friday opening ceremony that will kick off the games is supposed to be a surprise, and the show’s creative director, filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, said he had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to reveal any secrets. But thousands of people were invited to the Sunday run-through in the Maracana Stadium, and tidbits quickly trickled onto the Internet.
The show, likely to be seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world, is expected to highlight Brazil’s natural wonders, such as the Amazon; its musical heritage, from samba to funk; its history; and its technological feats. It also touches on urban life in the country's poorer neighborhoods, or favelas.
One of the showpieces was a skit in which Gisele apparently gets accosted by a boy dressed in what one news site described as "simple clothes." A police chase ensues. The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported Gisele entering to the song “The Girl From Ipanema” and then being “robbed.”
“The final message of this scene, however, is peace,” the article said.
Salis deemed the episode a “reaffirmation of a racist stereotype” about violent young black men and hoped the organizers would change the program.
Meirelles, who has directed films such as "City of God," "The Constant Gardener" and "Blindness," said viewers and the media had misinterpreted this part of the show. He described the controversy as a “tremendous misunderstanding."
“Imagine us doing a scene like that in the opening,” he wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “I’m not that clueless.”
What actually happened, he said, was that they tested out a scene in which a food vendor on the beach rushes up to take a selfie with Gisele. Security guards don’t like it and give chase, but Gisele intervenes to protect him.
“It was a gag that was not funny so we cut it,” he said. "There was nothing that looked like a robbery in the scene except two security guards chasing after a vendor. They are three professional clowns."
According to Folha de S. Paulo, the rehearsal lasted five hours and traced Brazilian history, including depictions of the pre-colonial era and the arrival of the Portuguese. In another segment, an airplane designed by Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont takes flight.
A recent commercial also riffed on this idea of favela street thieves. The advertisement for Norwegian retailer XXL featured a kid from a favela who watches a motorcyclist drop his wallet. The boy picks it up. The police think he stole it and chase the kid. But he returns the wallet to its rightful owner, who turns out to be Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho.
In an interview on the Rio 2016 Olympics website, Meirelles said he hopes that the opening ceremony, coming at a time of an economic recession and rising crime in the country, will be “a drug for depression in Brazil. Brazilians can look at it and say we are a cool people, we are different ethnic groups, we live together, we never went to war, we are peaceful, we know how to enjoy life and we tend to be happy.”
“I am prepared for the haters,” he added.