Those We’ve Lost

Paulo Gustavo, Comedian Who Lampooned Brazilian Mothers, Dies at 42

Weeks before falling ill, he urged his countrymen to consider laughter “an act of resistance.” One of the country’s most beloved actors, he died of complications of Covid-19.

The Brazilian comedian and actor Paulo Gustavo in 2019. He created the beloved character Dona Hermínia, a wasp-tongued mother, and played her on both stage and screen.<br /><br />
Credit...Victor Pollak/O Globo TV, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

RIO DE JANEIRO — He was best known for portraying the character Dona Hermínia, a cantankerous but loving middle-aged mother whose sharp tongue and misadventures left Brazilians doubled over in laughter.

The role, which he played onstage and later in films, made the actor and writer Paulo Gustavo Amaral Monteiro de Barros, known professionally as Paulo Gustavo, one of the most acclaimed Brazilian artists of his generation. Fans came to love him for the tact with which he lampooned the traits of dysfunctional families.

Mr. de Barros died on Tuesday of complications of Covid-19 at a Rio de Janeiro hospital, where he had been treated for the disease since March 13, according to a statement by the medical team that oversaw his care. He was 42.

In a nation beleaguered by a pandemic that has killed more than 414,000 people, Mr. de Barros’s death sparked a rare widespread outpouring of grief.

In Niterói, his hometown in Rio de Janeiro State, tearful residents gathered along the bay on Wednesday night to give him one last standing ovation. There were similar gestures of admiration in several other parts of the country.

Renan Quinalha, a law professor and human rights activist, credited Mr. de Barros, a champion of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, with easing intolerant views in a nation that has long been deeply sexist and homophobic.

“Through screens, he entered the homes of homophobic people who were touched and challenged by his characters,” Mr. Quinalha wrote in a tribute in the newspaper Folha. “He used his life and his art as tools to broaden moral horizons and to challenge deeply entrenched biases.”

Condolence statements came in a torrent, including one from President Jair Bolsonaro, who has played down the threat of Covid-19 and disparaged gay people. “His talent and charisma earned the affection of all Brazilians,” Mr. Bolsonaro wrote.

Mr. de Barros is survived by his husband, Thales Bretas, a dermatologist whom he married in 2015; his parents, Déa Lúcia Vieira Amaral, a retired schoolteacher, and Júlio Márcio Monteiro de Barros; and two children, Gael and Romeu, both 1 year old, born to surrogate mothers in the United States.

Mr. de Barros was born in Niterói on Oct. 30, 1978. After studying acting at Casa das Artes de Laranjeiras in Rio de Janeiro, he made his debut as Dona Hermínia in a play he wrote, “My Mother Is a Character.” It was a hit, drawing more than 100,000 theatergoers in 2006 and 2007.

In the play, and in the film adaptation, which he produced and wrote, Dona Hermínia, an overbearing mother whose husband abandons her for a younger woman, leaves home abruptly, leaving her children perplexed. She seeks refuge at the home of a beloved aunt, with whom she shares her sorrows and frustrations.

The movie was also a hit and followed by two sequels.

Late last year, during one of his final television appearances, Mr. de Barros urged Brazilians to take care of themselves during the pandemic and to find solace in the arts.

“Laughter is an act of resistance,” he said. “We’re needing these annoying masks now to protect our face from this virus, and unfortunately these masks hide something very precious for us Brazilians: our smile.”