Classic Film Review: Sex After Marriage gets complicated for “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976)”

A widow finds herself missing her abusive trainwreck of a late husband after she remarries in “Dona Flor and her Two Husbands,” a Brazilian classic that’s been remade under many titles, and even became a Brazilian TV series.

Racy, quite sexy for its time and for decades the most popular movie ever made in Brazil, the 1976 breakout feature of director and co-writer Bruno Barreto has been restored in all its lurid, colorful, slice-of-1940s Brazilian glory for a re-release.

It’s a gorgeous period piece, vividly recreating a lively Salvador, Bahia, Brazil during World War II. That’s where we meet the drunken, handsome partying playboy Vandinho. It’s Carnival time, and he’s in drag with a mob of his mates, tipsily crooning along with a guitarist by the dawn’s early light until he keels over and drops dead.

His wife Dona Flor (Sônia Braga) runs to his side and wails, and as the women of her neighborhood comfort her, the funeral preparations begin and the men start to tell stories, a comically contrasting portrait of the blond rake (José Wilker) emerges.

He was “a gambler and a whoremonger,” the ladies cluck, in Portuguese, with English subtitles. His wedding ring? “He never wore it,” maybe because of the womanizing, more likely because “he lost it” in a bet. “And he BEAT her.”

The men lament the loss of their louche life-of-the-party. He always had an eye for “the stars, the dice and whores,” they chuckle. Roulette wheels all over town should stop spinning in tribute.

A boorish brute and a charmer he was. And a rascal. And since this was Brazil in 1943, that one time he slapped Florípides when she wouldn’t surrender her savings during a gambling binge, his fellows — at least — are willing to let that slide.

But a long flashback takes us through their lives as a couple. Florípides runs a cooking school, and we see her recall preparing (in sumptuous detail) his seafood favorite dishes. It’s just that there’s no indication of where HIS money comes from. What keeps him in white linen suits, always a high roller with the dice, always betting on “red” at the roulette wheel, always bluffing at the after-hours poker game at the funeral parlor?

There’s someone at the door? Twenty reales says its about a dead MAN, not a woman!

Valdomiro or “Vandiho” is quite the charmer, running tabs, flirting with every good looking woman in town — hookers, casino singers, his wife’s culinary students. He leans on his local priest for stake money for his latest sure thing bet, and the padre is almost sold.

And Vandiho is an uninhibited lover. We almost don’t need to see him in action with his wife to figure that out.

Sensuality just oozes out of this film — Vandinho, sitting on a streetside windowsill, lounging about in his underwear, buxom women all up and down the street spilling out of their windows, and bodices to see him and appreciate the show.

But all that carnality leaves Florípides’ life when she dons the black dress. Remarrying the respectable, socially upstanding pharmacist (Mauro Mendonça) improves her life in every regard — save in the bedroom.

She ignores the warnings from the bruxa, conjure woman (witch) who suggests there were and are steps to make sure her late husband’s soul is “at rest.” That’s how her mostly-silent longings for that “excitement” in her life result in his ghostly return — mostly nude, entertaining her reluctant — “I am MARRIED now!” — sexual fantasies, sitting on their wardrobe, cackling at Dr Teodoro Madureira’s clinical, perfunctory love-making. Only she can see him as he joins them in their marital bed each night.

“Dona Flor” was a Golden Globe contender in its day, and quite notorious. Its closing image is as iconic as the final shot of films like “The 400 Blows” — a happy trio, emerging from church on Sunday, promenading down the rua and across the square, with naked Vandinho arm in arm, grabbing Flora’s bottom.

Barreto, already a veteran filmmaker with two features under his belt and yet just 21 when this film came out, went on to successfully adapt another Jorge Amado novel, “Gabriela,” with Braga, hit another high water mark with “Four Days in September” and make a mostly-forgotten string of also-ran dramas and comedies such as the Gwyneth Paltrow flight attendant sex romp “View from the Top.” He was married to Steven Spielberg’s ex, Amy Irving, in the ’90s.

Braga became a fixture in Brazilian and then international cinema with “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and was most recently in “Wonder,” “The Jesus Rolls,” “Fatima” and TV’s “Luke Cage.”

And “Dona Flor” went on to be remade, again and again, with Hollywood’s laughably PG “Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) starring Sally Field and Jeff Bridges as the newlyweds, with James Caan the rake and gambling man she never got over, the worst of the lot.

Perhaps the main reason this classic been so ripe for remakes is that the original, colorful as it is, has some pretty slack storytelling, a 90 minute yarn squeezed into a 110 minute sex farce. The long flashback detailing Vadinho’s excesses is marvelous. The pharmacist’s staid and upper class speeches (to his fellow pharmacists), musicales and starchy parties just go on and on.

But it’s still funny, still gorgeous to look at. And if Wilker smirks, leans and leers off the screen, Braga positively shimmers as a woman who can’t always get what she wants — not in one package, anyway.

Rating: R, sex, nudity, domestic violence

Cast: Sônia Braga, José Wilker and Mauro Mendonça

Credits: Directed by Bruno Barreto, scripted by Bruno Barreto and Eduardo Coutinho, based on a novel by Jorge Amado. A Film Movement restoration and re-release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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