RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Giant unicorns, half-naked models and other spectacles are par for the course in Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnaval parade, so Paulo Barros has made a career out of pushing the world-famous event's outrageousness to new heights — or depths.
Even by Brazil's relaxed standards, this year's parade threatens to set a new standard for bad taste and weirdness as entrants spend millions of dollars competing for attention and sponsorship deals.
One samba school wants to launch a float piled high with fake corpses in reference to the Holocaust. Another school will be led by a model who aims to have set a record for the number of cosmetic surgeries performed on one person.
Even many jaded Brazilians think such displays are over the top, and they're complaining that Barros and other directors of samba schools that stage the annual parades have gone too far. The five-day Carnaval begins Friday.
Barros and his Viradouro samba school want to unveil a spectacle Sunday night on the theme of "goose bumps" that will feature, along with the Holocaust float, 28 people tied upside down to crucifixes and dancers in cockroach costumes.
On Thursday, Rio de Janeiro state's main Jewish federation won a court injunction prohibiting the school from sending out the float under the penalty of tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
A spokesman said the federation decided to sue after discovering that the school planned to have an Adolf Hitler impersonator along with the pile of "corpses."
"To mix dancers and floats with the Holocaust is to make it banal," said Sergio Niskier, the president of the Israelite Federation of Rio de Janeiro State. "It's sensationalizing something that can't be treated this way."
In her decision, Judge Juliana Kalichszteim wrote that Carnaval "shouldn't be used as a tool for the cult of hate, any form of racism, besides the clear banalization of barbaric events."
Over his decade-long career, Barros has gotten more people talking than perhaps any other Carnaval designer. Instead of the giant, sequined animals and castles typical of other schools, he's put feathered dancers atop mounds of old Volkswagen Beetles and built towering floats out of pots and pans.
Some of his competitors, though, think that he's gone overboard this time.
"This is not what Carnaval is about," said Roberto Szaniecki, the director of the Grande Rio samba school and himself of Jewish descent. "We want to have a party and sing and dance, and to put the Holocaust into that environment is not right."
Barros argues that even the Holocaust can become a Carnaval float if it's handled right.
"This is against violence," he said of the banned float. "The way we've done it, I don't think it's in bad taste."
Bad taste or not, the freak show will go on Sunday night. Among the other five samba schools that are parading in the 60,000-seat Sambadrome stadium will be Porto da Pedra, which will feature model and lingerie designer Angela Bismarchi this year. She's best known for having undergone more cosmetic surgeries than any other Brazilian, which in a nation obsessed with improving on nature is saying something. (The world record for plastic surgeries is 47, held by American Cindy Jackson.)
Last Monday, in Bismarchi's 42nd operation, her eyes were altered to look more Asian in order to help Porto da Pedra commemorate a century of Japanese emigration to Brazil.
Her plastic surgeon husband, Wagner Moraes, ran wires from the outside corners of her eyes under the skin of her temples to staples in front of her ears. Minutes before the parade Sunday, he'll tighten the wires to elongate her eyes further.
"We're all trying to draw the most attention," Bismarchi said. "For me, recognition is the biggest reward."
Such assaults on good taste sprout from the fierce competition that surrounds Carnaval, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors and tens of millions of dollars in revenue, said Andre Diniz, who's written a history of Brazil's annual event.
Winning samba schools are rewarded with lucrative sponsorship deals for next year's parade and draw large crowds to their pre-Carnaval rehearsals. Diniz estimated that each of the main parade's 12 samba schools spends more than $2 million to put on the event, which features thousands of costumed dancers and elaborate floats.
"The spectacle has become a product sold to the entire world now," Diniz said. "Today, you have a big, popular opera, where you have theater, music, celebrities and things that will get people talking."
Last year, the school Unidos da Tijuca got people talking by re-creating Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc being burned by napalm. A dancer in a bodysuit played Kim, while dancers in bright-orange flame costumes swirled around her.
Some of this year's floats are merely strange. The samba school Grande Rio, for example, will enter a feathered-and-sequined celebration of — natural gas.
Why natural gas? Because the school's top sponsor this year is the energy-producing city of Coari in the Amazon. The school's entry will describe the use of natural gas from ancient Babylon to a fantastical, energy-green city that looks a lot like present-day Coari.
"What we've lost in simplicity with these Carnavals, we've made up in size and originality," Diniz said. "The critic is powerless this Carnaval."