Months ago (in the pre-Covid era) I was small talking with a colleague of mine who had recently joined our staff at the Department to teach Portuguese. I could not restrain myself from telling him about my passion for bossa nova. I had just said the word that my colleague interrupted me: “Then you can’t miss Coisa mais linda! It’s a Brazilian Netflix series… and no excuses, it’s got English subtitles!”.
Useless to say I started watching Coisa mais linda on that very evening. And I loved it to bits since its cold open, that starts with female hands entrusting to the waves a little statuette of a plump-breasted, blue-dressed figure, among flowers and votive candles. It is Iemanja, the Brazilian divinity of the sea, half Madonna, half mermaid, protector of sailors, venerated by their women, who celebrate her in white dresses with ritual dances. An off-screen female voice accompanies the sequence, reciting the words of a famous song: ““É melhor ser alegre que ser triste […]/ Mas pra fazer um samba com beleza/ É preciso um bocado de tristeza” (Samba da Benção); it roughly says that it is better to be cheerful than sad, but for good samba – as well as for good series, I would add – you need cheerfulness with a pinch of sadness. The cold open ends and the title sequence starts accompanied by the celebrated notes of the Girl from Ipanema. In fact, the series title is a tribute to the 1959 song by Tom Jobim with words by Vinicius de Moraes.
The story begins precisely on that year, when Malu (daughter to a very rich and super-conservative businessman from São Paulo) lands at the airport of Rio where her husband is supposed to be waiting for her. Of course, he isn’t. Malu finds out that he has disappeared from the city, together with the considerable capital transferred to him by her father to be invested there. He actually bought a place to be refurbished in order to transform it into a luxury restaurant, but he never started works. Tall, tender, young and lovely (and above all trained since her birth to play the role of the perfect trophy wife) Malu decides not to return to her father and mother’s but, for once, to decide about her own life and transform the dilapidated place her husband bought into a nightclub for live music. And not just any music, but the new bossa that is sweeping Rio. Iemanja, whose statuette Malu has found in the old cupboard of the club, will watch over her.
But why did this series enthralled me from the start? Was it because of the glossy-magazine quality of the locations? Or perhaps for the haute couture outfits winking at Sex and the City? Was it for the gripping, and at times even spicy, story? For the elegance and skill of the leading actresses? Or perhaps for the sophisticated music on the soundtrack? Or simply because it shows the obstacles to female entrepreneurship, which still exist, but seem more bearable if projected onto distant times?
Perhaps what really mesmerised me was the song of the title sequence, Girl from Ipanema. Because, guess who’s the lady who sings it? None other than Amy Winehouse, with her voice so recognisable, hoarse and flexible, with her ironic yet desperate attitude. The recording is from her third album, which was released posthumously in 2011: Lioness: Hidden Treasures. But why not using Astrud Gilberto’s recording instead, since she was the ‘original’ Girl from Ipanema? Why not João’s wife and muse, who sang that song in those very years with her fluty voice, making Stan Getz fall scandalously in love with her? Perhaps I understood the production company’s choice only after watching the last episode of the first season. And I loved it. I loved that choice more than other, more ideological ways of telling a story of female empowerment that demands a sacrificial victim. Because with her sad and exaggeratedly eyelined eyes, with her circle dresses too short to be original from the 50s, Amy always parodied the submissive femininity of those years. She did it with sweet ferocity, as sweetly ferocious was her singing. And with fierce sweetness she fell victim to it.