The most popular Brazilian film for decades, this funny & steamy erotic ghost story took the world by storm and made a star of Sonia Braga. Bruno Barreto adapted a Jorge Amado ‘Bahía’ novel, one that celebrates the positive role that plain old-fashioned carnal lust can play in this world. The bereaved widow Dona Flor does Gene Tierney one better — her desire literally brings her love object back to life . . . but in bed. Rich music, earthy culture. . . Film Movement’s version is the uncut original, and has a new director commentary.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Film Movement Classics
1976 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 118 min. / Street Date July 26, 2022 / Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos / Available from Film Movement / 39.95
Starring: Sonia Braga, José Wilker, Mauro Mendonça, Dinorah Brillanti.
Cinematography: Murilo Salles
Production Designer: Anisio Medeiros
Film Editor: Raimundo Higino
Original Music: Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Francis Hume
Written by Bruno Barreto, Eduardo Coutinho, Leopoldo Serran from a novel by Jorge Amado
Produced by Luiz Carlos Barreto, Newton Rique
Directed by Bruno Barreto
Every once in a while an ‘erotic lite’ drama or comedy will fill theaters, easing slightly whatever puritan stigma might still be attached to representations of sex on screen. Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate thrilled audiences with carnal desire expressed in literal fire. Pedro Almodóvar’s ¡Átame! played wild games with an escaped lunatic and a strung-out porn actress — and yet is basically sweet at heart.
Bruno Barreto’s spicy Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands became a big international hit of the late 1970s and made a star of its daring leading actress Sonia Braga. The epitome of Brazilian earthiness, the beautiful and refined Braga upped the standing of sexy stars everywhere. In the 1970s, sex scenes and nudity were as common in the Brazilian cinema as in liberated Italy — think Laura Antonelli — but Braga’s classy appearances stand in a category by themselves: sex without shame.
The film has fantasy aspects but is based in a rich depiction of a bygone era, an earthy, traditional, by-no-means gender-equitable Brazilian culture swamped in religion and paternalism. One husband is a complete rat, and his wife an all-forgiving force of emotional desire. A few onlookers complain about this status quo, but not the principals. It’s wrong for husbands to feel entitled to beat their wives, but it happens here; the author and filmmakers depict how things were, not necessarily how they ought to be.
The movie was adapted from a popular novel by Jorge Amado, a Brazilian who earlier in his career was known for politically-oriented stories. Llike others of his artistic generation, he was forced to live abroad during particularly harsh regimes. Amado’s progressive stories later became more sensual, and often centered on the provincial town of Bahía. Dona Flor is populated by an amusing array of proletarian workers and wastrels, poets and frauds.
It’s 1943. The young and beautiful Dona Florípides (Sonia Braga) is a popular cook and cooking teacher. She’s married to Valdomiro, aka Vadinho (José Wilker), a handsome young rakehell who respects none of society’s conventions. Vadinho pretends to be faithful to Dona Flor but spends his nights drinking, gambling and whoring. His debts are legendary and the local gamblers and lowlifes love him. One night Vadinho comes back wearing someone else’s coat because he’s lost all of his clothes in a card game. Dona Flor suffers humiliations and even beatings, but she ignores her girlfriends’ advice to leave her husband. She’s still happy — Vadinho turns her on in bed and she can’t live without him. The only sticking point is her wish for children, which causes her to follow up on gossip suggesting that a prostitute’s new baby is really Vadinho’s. When that issue is cleared up, she’s made a fast friend.
The story very suddenly takes a whimsical turn to the fantastic. While dancing lewdly in Carnival Vadinho unexpectedly drops dead, and Dona Flor must live without him after all. After her period of mourning she’s pleased to be courted by pharmacist Teodoro Madureira (Mauro Mendoniça), a steady, sober and moral man. But Teodoro is not a great lover and Dona Flor misses the sexual fireworks in her life. Her personal solution involves a supernatural return from the grave — that comes straight to Dona Flor’s bed.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands delivers just the kind of upscale spice on which art houses once thrived, even when censorship limited the sex angle to mere suggestion. Intelligent, witty and honest about human relationships, Barreto’s movie finds a nice balance between vulgarity and sensuality, skirting the accepted borders of taste with its unabashed softcore nudity. The heavy-breathing Ms. Braga convinces us that sex is the rightful center of all human activity, and does so without lowering her respectability quotient one iota. The Brazilian trappings add flavor to the fantastic sex tale: welcoming old houses, lush music, tropical greenery and colorful 1940s costumes.
The Church has a place in all this too. Tricking a priest into investing in a gambling scheme, Vadinho points out the face of a carved angel, which to him is gazing ‘lustfully’ at a statue of the Virgin Mary. When Dona Flor passes through the cathedral she notices the same figurine, and seems to recognize the mischievous eyes of her husband. Sex and morality are not separated in this culture.
The moral of the story would seem to be that, as far as love and happiness are concerned, anything goes. As in later movies by Pedro Almodóvar, people find any number of ways to work out relationships that seldom conform 100% to society’s standards. The prostitute lives in a crib and sees her lover only infrequently, but she has her healthy baby and feels completely fulfilled. Dona Flor has issues with Vadinho but is also crazy about him; the guests that attend his funeral clearly loved the bum too. The solution to her limp marriage to the ‘good’ man breaks commandments, defies logic and is indecent as well. But Different Strokes, as they say — in this case it appears a practical solution. Dona Flor couldn’t be happier.
The term Magical Realism comes to mind but Barreto’s movie is better described as a naughty Film Blanc. One can’t argue with the crazy image of Dona Flor strolling proudly out of church with her ‘two husbands,’ the respectable man on one arm and the naked rogue on the other.
Move over Orson Welles: Bruno Barreto directed Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands at age 20, and it was already his third feature. He’s been busy ever since: his Brazilian film Four Days in September (1997) is based on a true incident and earned an Oscar nomination. Alan Arkin plays an American ambassador kidnapped by revolutionaries.
Sonia Braga graced more American screens in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film now notably Missing In Action. She also made a couple of guest appearances on Bill Cosby’s family-oriented TV show (gee, that disappeared from syndication all of a sudden). Seven years later, United Artists’ international release Gabriela presented Braga in another Jorge Amado story directed by Bruno Barreto. She plays an earthy child bride who marries a Turkish bar owner (Marcello Mastroianni) in Bahía of old. The film has no fantasy element but is just as steamy as Dona Flor. It’s recommended.
Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a solid transfer from what to me looks like a dupe negative made for export — it’s in very good shape but the restorers didn’t go all the way back to the source. The image shows a few digs and scratches. Color and sharpness are very good, but do not pop. As expected, it’s much more attractive than the old DVD from New Yorker.
This is the uncut movie, the version reportedly released in America in 1976; in Brazil it was cut by a few minutes. The show has a great deal of local music, which many viewers will find sensual in itself. Without straining, Barreto expresses an exoticism that comes from human warmth and eccentricity.
The extras begin with a featurette distributed to promote the picture when new. The disc also contains a new commentary by director Barreto. It’s rather sparse but has good comments if you’re willing to wait through some quiet gaps. His talk alternates between recollections of production details & his actors, and just narrating the story line. He describes the Bahía culture of old as similar to that of Italy, specifically Sicily.
Film Movement’s insert booklet offers more analysis. Mary Jane Marcasiano’s helpful liner notes explain that the specific locale of Dona Flor is Pelourhino in Salvador Bahía, the old colonial capital of Brazil. A big influence on Jorge Amado’s book was the confluence of two religions, repressive Catholicism and the more natural Candomblé, a West African Yoruban religion. The Catholic priest can’t help Dona Flor with her erotic phantom issues, but the exorcism rite performed by a Candomblé priestess works fine … until Dona Flor decides she wants her ghost Vadinho back.
Thanks to Carlos do Prado Lima Albornoz for his
aid and corrections in a letter from 2009.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Sound: Excellent ( DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Portuguese)
New commentary by Bruno Barreto
Color illustrated 16-page booklet by Mary Jane Marcasiano.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 2, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson