Monday, April 4, 2011

Bruna Surfistinha: A Review

Note: the following review was also posted on Regina Scharf's "Deep Brazil" blog. Hat's off to Regina for letting me repost it here.

A week before Carnaval, Ana Paula and I had an opportunity to see “Bruna Surfistinha“, the new film by director Marcus Baldini, together with sex and gender researchers Gregory Mitchell and Fatima Ceccetto.

The film is loosely based on the writings and experiences of Raquel Pacheco, AKA “Bruna the Surfer Chick”, a paulista prostitute who became briefly famous in the early aughties as one of the pioneers of internet commercialized sex. Long before Craig’s List became notorious as a virtual meeting point for pros and punters, “Bruna” had her own website where she’d describe her day in florid prose and “grade” her clients as to their sexual performance. Punters apparently couldn’t get enough of it, confirming the old saw that what really turns most clients on is the illusion (?) that their sexual prowess impresses even sex workers. Bruna’s blog became an overnight sensation, winning prizes and even earning its author recognition by the Old Media. Surfing on her new-found celebrity status, Raquel retired from The Life, married a client and entered university as a psychology major.

I had to admit that walking into the theater, I had deep reservations about the film. Given the Brazilian media’s current artificially-induced panic regarding trafficking of women and sexual tourism, I expected a tiresome morality play. To a certain extent, I wasn’t deceived: the end of the film shows Bruna leaving prostitution to be reclaimed by society as a good girl and potential future wife. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by all the twists and turns the plot took to get to the predictable denouement. When I left the theater I felt that, while the film has major issues that need to be addressed, it does a better job showing the diversity and ambiguities of prostitution than any motion picture I’ve seen thus far.

The problem with most whore flicks is that they tend to focus on only one experience of sex work: either it’s a rollicking, laugh-a-minute blast (think “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”) or a degrading, humiliating, awful experience akin to slavery (think “Cristiane F”). Few films, if any, deal with sex workers’ main complaints about their jobs: to wit, it’s generally boring work where employees are routinely treated like subhumans, PARTICULARLY by the folks who want to “save” them from “a life of exploitation and degradation”. Even fewer try to show the vast diversity of sex work, which ranges from quick “buck-a-minute” blowjobs to lavish “call-out” services which provide entire sexual fantasy packages for thousands of dollars a shot.

To its enormous credit, “Bruna Surfistinha” attacks both of these cinematographic blind spots head on.

The first half of the film focuses on the day-to-day routine of sex work in almost tiresome detail. Raquel and her co-workers are shown as a diverse group of people who are in the job for a variety of reasons. Sure, there’s the drug addict. But there’s also the single mom, whose kid is the center of her life and the black maid who’s delighted to be promoted to the position of prostitute. And there’s Raquel herself, who found in sex work an escape from a suffocating and patriarchic family. The madame at Bruna’s first job is neither a scheming, exploitative viper, nor a matronly figure with a heart of gold: she’s just a slightly bitchy businesswoman trying to run a knocking shop full of diverse and problematic personalities. The film also shows her kicking workers out for using drugs, something that’s far more common in the sex biz in Brazil than the oft-repeated stereotype that brothel managers use drugs to keep sex workers addicted and passive. (Anyone who’s ever had firsthand experience dealing with someone who’s far gone on booze and coke – prostitutes’ two drugs of choice – can testify as to how ridiculous that particular stereotype is).

And then there are the clients.

At first, I was afraid that the film would follow the tired old stereotype that punters are an evil brood of ugly, sex-deprived, quasi-rapist perverts. Raquel’s first sexual experience with a client is truly horrid, verging on rape. The camera zooms in on her wincing face as the john plunges away, oblivious to her discomfort. However, she soon gets into the swing of her job and as she does, her clients become better looking and more attentive. At first I thought this ridiculous, but afterwards, in a moment of fridge logic, I thought that perhaps this was the director trying to show Raquel’s changing perceptions of sex work: first, all the men are repulsive, creepy and stereotypical; later, they become more interesting, handsome and individuated. The film even shows her having what is possibly her first orgasm-through-intercourse with a client, something that pros from three continents assure me does happen from time to time (if not as often as punters imagine it happening). In a surprise switch, it’s Raquel’s awful and apparently heartless first client who’s always there for her in moments of crisis and who probably saves her life. The end of the film implies that, upon leaving prostitution, Raquel hooked up permanently with him. Now THAT’S a Chekov’s Gun few American directors would have the balls to fire.

Another great thing about Bruna Surfistinha is that it when it comes to showing the diversity of sex work venues, Baldini really gives it the old college try. Raquel is shown working, in sequence, in a small downtown brothel – or privé – as a rent-a-girlfriend at Love Story disco, trading blowjobs for transit-fines with cops, as a high-priced call girl, as an internet-based one-woman brothel and, finally, as an addicted, coked out whore giving it up for 15 reais a shot in a fast foda in crackolândia. (A scene which is responsible for what, IMHO, is the film’s best potential internet-ready meme: “Hoje não estou dando: estou distribuindo.”)

But for all its positive points, there are problems with Bruna Surfistinha. For one thing, in trying to show the diversity of sex work, the director puts Raquel through a veritable rollercoaster-ride of a career which only vaguely resembles the real woman’s memoirs. In real life, Raquel claimed she entered sex work with eyes wide open and a set goal: make a hundred thousand reais to pay for college and get out. She paid for health insurance (including psychological care) and registered as a tax-paying independent worker. Apparently, she did get addicted to coke at one point, but not to anything like the degree shown in the film. Shortly after she became an internet celebrity, she cashed in her chips and retired. By all accounts, Raquel is doing fairly well in the straight work market today.

In the film, however, “Bruna” rises meteorically from privé puta to high-priced call girl in one fell swoop. She then, predictably, falls into the degradation of drugs, trading sex for coke money in São Paulo’s worst zona (all without ever losing her swank pool-equipped penthouse, mind you). This “rise and fall of the whore”-style plot was hackneyed even back when Jesus was a kosher carpenter washing sex workers’ feet. Seeing it on the silver screen today can only make the spectator groan, especially if they’ve actually read Raquel’s book “O Doce Veneno do Escorpião”.

In fact, last Thursday I interviewed a prostitute in Macaé who spared no words in qualifying the film as “trash” specifically because of its “romanticized notion of prostitution as degradation”. “OK,” she said, “yes, there are women strung out on crack and other drugs selling sex. But hell, I’m 44 and entered into the life when I was 40 and I’ve already bought two houses for myself on my earnings. You mean to tell me the Bruna supposedly did all that, got a penthouse apartment and everything, and still didn’t put a single Real away for herself? That’s not how it works”.

But it’s perhaps too early to hope that the cinematographic industry would produce a “true-to-life” pop film about sex work, especially in today’s climate of hysteria regarding trafficking. When it comes to portraying the face of Brazilian sex work, “Bruna Surfistinha“, for all its faults, is a valiant effort and a necessary corrective to 2009’s execrable “Filhas do Sol”, though it’s perhaps not as good as 2008’s indy production :”O Céu de Suely”. With the reservation that showings of the film should be accompanied by readings of Raquel’s book, I can recommend it as a good resource for the professor who wishes to educate regarding sex work in terras brasilis.


  1. Thaddeus and Ana Paula,
    I've found you through your reviews which I loved. I found it interesting that we are both leaving in Rio and I think we share a lot of ideas and have somehow convergent lives.
    I would like to contact you but couldn't find your email. Please find mine at my site:

    I would love to chat with you sometime! Best regards, Rod

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