Director Bruno Barreto on the set with his leading lady Sônia Braga
DOÑA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos) B+
Brazil (110 mi) 1976 d: Bruno Barreto
“He was a gigolo, a bum, and a shameless drunkard… A swindler, a penniless gambler, a cheap crook! A scoundrel!”
A lightweight sex farce based on Jorge Amado’s 1966 fantasy novel that not only broke all Brazilian box office records as the most watched Brazilian film for some 35 years after its release (largely due to its success abroad), outgrossing both JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) combined at home, but it also introduced the world to Sônia Braga, a living legend who became an international star. The director was only 21 at the time of the film’s release, but he is the son of Luiz Carlos Barreto, one of the most important Brazilian producers during the Cinema Novo period. Equally important is the sensuous musical contribution from Chico Buarque, one of the artists from the Tropicália movement, or Tropicalismo, arrested at the height of the military dictatorship of the late 60’s and exiled to Italy until it was safe to return, but this film is reflective of the Bahian roots of the novelist while also a celebration of relaxed government censorship. Set in 1943 in a city Amado helped popularize in his novels, fascinated with the culture of Salvador in the Bahia region (an historical slave port, with Brazil receiving more African slaves than any other country, driving the mining industry, also the sugar and coffee plantations, with Brazil the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery), with viewers captivated by wish-fulfillment fantasy and the exuberance of the mixed-race Bahian atmosphere, drawing upon Afro-Brazilian rituals and folklore, the film mirrors heightened Bahian interest in black culture, with white middle class inhibitions being starkly contrasted against the more openly expressive lifestyle of the black Bahian poor, where all the leads are notably light-skinned, with darker-skinned players serving lesser roles, reflecting a crucial racial stigmatization that still prevails in modern societies. While the war and other social realities are nonexistent, of unusual interest, the original novel is a veritable record of Bahian cuisine and could be read just for the purposes of the culinary history of Bahia and the northeast of Brazil, where the film accentuates extended scenes describing food recipes in much the same way sex scenes are featured, with Braga teaching a culinary class while also not shying away from nudity (in stark contrast to the harsh repression of the ruling military regime), all designed to create a sensually exotic allure that became associated with Brazilian films. Barreto attempted to recreate the magic several years later by adapting another Amado novel in GABRIELA (1983), an international project featuring Braga starring with Marcello Mastroianni, but the effort fell flat. In fact, nothing in Barreto’s career has matched the commercial and artistic success of this early film.
Anyone who’s lived through the destructive social cliques in high school can remark upon seeing that elusively beautiful girl with a bad news boyfriend, often with disturbing results, as they’re really not a good match, but this film explores that marital dichotomy with exaggerated ribald humor, creating a Don Juan character who is a legendary scoundrel and a cheat, clever but morally dubious, with a reputation for drinking and womanizing that spreads throughout town from brothel to brothel, where he’s viewed with reverence. In the opening segment, Vadinho (José Wilker) is seen drinking and singing openly on the street with a group of all-night Carnival revelers, dressed in drag where he’s strangely wearing a dress, fascinated by the appearance of a voluptuous female Carnival dancer whose booty-shaking rhythmic gyrations drives men wild, stirring them into a frenzy, with Vadinho joining in until he drops dead right there on the street. His wife Doña Flor (Sônia Braga) is devastated, though a Greek chorus of well-wishers and gossipers offer a variety of opinions, thinking she’s better off without him, as he was a good-for-nothing lothario who brutally slapped her around and stole her money to go gambling, notoriously living at the roulette wheel where his dream was a run on number 17 that would make him rich beyond his dreams, downing rum like it’s mother’s milk during his infamous late night exploits of whore-mongering, famously sleeping with all the girls in the brothels, where his entire life was spent in childish indulgences where he’s the life of the party, while also revered as a hero by his cohort of gamblers and lowlifes as he refused to conform, but lived by his own rules, even seen at the roulette wheel on his wedding day. Flor runs a cooking class on Bahian food, given an exotic context as it feels so dreamlike, letting her imagination run wild through local flavors, sending the film into an extensive flashback sequence, recalling how Vadinho loved her cooking, devouring her in bed as he would one of her meals, but he was utterly unreliable, out the door in a flash, always dressed in his white suit and hat, as do his bar-room friends, where it’s rare to see anyone dressed otherwise. The women on the other hand are attired in bright colorful clothing, providing a tropical feel, always arriving in groups to offer Flor moral support after her husband stays out for days on end. Despite losing sleep staying up at night waiting for him, it’s clear she adores the man in spite of his darker impulses, as he always puts a smile on her face promising to treat her as a queen.
Vadinho’s indiscretions are the essential ingredient of the book and the film, as his carousing takes him to all walks of life, mixing with rich and poor alike, making no distinction, putting the finger on anyone he meets, even hitting the local priest for a gambling stake, which the padre simply can’t refuse, as the man can devilishly charm his way into anything. Even after he’s gone, Flor has a hard time forgetting him (as does another young girl crying her eyes out at his funeral), as he’s left his larger-than-life imprint, where there’s literally no one else like him. But after Vadinho, her mother pushes Flor towards respectability, the polar opposite of her first husband, thinking that’s the best thing for her, playing matchmaker with local pharmacist Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça), a perfect gentleman and a pillar of respectability in the community who looks admiringly on her from afar. Despite his polite manner and cultivated bourgeois taste, with a flair for playing the bassoon, much is made of that absurdly comic obsession, bringing them an air of refinement, which ends up having little to do with her overall happiness. An older man who is completely dull and unexciting in every respect, with everything in moderation, providing financial stability, which is important, and he’s considerate, but bland, lacking the animal magnetism of her first husband. Despite the appearance of happiness, Flor is still not content, as her new husband can’t satisfy her sexual appetite, leaving her yearning for Vadinho, despite his reckless, devil-may-care attitude. On the one year anniversary of her marriage, apparently from the afterlife, Vadinho actually reappears completely naked on her bed with a big smile on his face, as if to ask if she missed him. Already knowing the answer, he pushes his luck, which sends her recoiling in fear, not wanting to cheat on her husband. The gist of it is only Flor can see him (usually naked), as he’s returned as a ghost of himself, but he’s still up to his old ways, taking measures into his own hands to allow his barmates to go on that magical run at the roulette wheel that he never managed. Easily the best scene is Vadinho sitting on a dresser laughing hysterically at the pathetic display of lovemaking in this new relationship, knowing immediately what she’s missing, encouraging her with kisses. Somewhat humiliated, she’s torn by his presence, wishing he would just disappear. In an epic display of Bahian black magic and voodoo, Flor attempts to fight the spirits to make him go away, and it nearly succeeds, which instantly scares the hell out of her, leaving her shockingly disappointed at the thought, immediately drawn to him again, which brings him back to her. Through magical realism, a staple of South American literature, a kind of mythic resolution allows Flor to discover an imaginary way to keep both husbands, where the whimsical finale is a picture of bourgeois respectability, a threesome in bed, seen attending church, walking through the center of town, with Vadinho’s ghost tagging along stark naked, grabbing at Flor’s butt, where she is totally at peace with this new arrangement, while Teodoro remains utterly clueless about what’s going on. While the film is a constant delight, the inherent patriarchal message, and sexist double standard, is that Vadinho, as a man, is free to carouse to his heart’s content, perhaps embodied by dictatorial regimes, while Flor, as a woman, may only imagine such sexual freedom, with her sensuality playing out in culinary expression.