Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Bruno Barreto
Still courtesy of Film Movement

‘Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands’ Is a Spicy Brazilian Cinema Classic

Bruno Barreto’s romantic charmer Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is rich with sensuous detail that fills every scene with dizzying amounts of culture, music, and atmosphere.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Bruno Barreto
Film Movement
26 July 2022

The vehicle that turned its leading actress Sônia Braga into an international star, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1976), had the distinct honor, for a 34-year run, of being Brazil’s most popular film of all time. A sultry and earthy slice of comedy, fantasy, and romance, Dona Flor exploited Braga’s natural sensuality to deliver a smart and sexually-daring dissection on infidelity and desire. The film is based on one of Brazil’s most reputed writers of magical realist literature, Jorge Amado, whose source novel has continued to prove popular with readers worldwide since its 1966 publication.

Braga plays Flor, a young, married woman who works at a job teaching cooking classes in her home apartment. Her husband, Vadinho (José Wilker), is a philandering spendthrift who wastes time and money in casinos while chasing after every available woman he sets eyes on. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands begins with Vadinho’s death, who suffers a heart attack in the streets of Bahia, Brazil, after a previous night of vigorous partying. Windowed and now grieving her loss, Flor spends much of her time moping and reminiscing about her late husband. We learn, through Flor’s conversations with her loved ones, that Vadinho was not just a flirtatious squanderer but also an abusive alcoholic. Yet, it seems, there was no accounting for his inexorable passion, which, nonetheless, captured Flor’s imagination and continues to stir her desires after his death.

No sooner does the young woman adjust to widowhood than she meets the sensible pharmacist in town named Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça). Teodoro ravishes Flor with attention and compliments, and his prudent ways impress her family. His staid and decorous lifestyle, however, bores Flor. As an intimate bedfellow, he fares worse. Secretly, she pines for the late Vadinho, and one evening he returns as a ghost. More libidinous than ever, he haunts her every move.

Directed by Bruno Barreto, who adapted its source novel for the screen with writer Eduardo Countinho, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands refers to the kind of leisurely-paced world cinema that has long gone out of fashion with moviegoers. Unspooling the thread of its narrative with painstaking measure, the film is sure to try the patience of many who prefer their love stories with a little more flash and danger. That said, Barreto’s romantic charmer never suffers from a lack of sensuous detail, which fills every scene with dizzying amounts of culture, music, and atmosphere. The narrative ingredients are dispensed smoothly and, despite a most economical framing of the action, a sense of movement is strongly felt in the story’s progression toward resolution.

What is most unusual about Barreto’s film is its structuring as a fantasy romance. For much of its nearly two-hour time length, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is purely a marriage drama. At only a little less than the remaining half hour do the fantasy elements kick in. The wait is long for the expected pay-off, and, depending on the viewer, it either works, or it doesn’t. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is of an extraction solely Latin American, the celebrated home base of magical realism’s literary movement, which means that the story is aligned unequivocally with Brazilian’s cultural mores.

Resting on a pointedly cultural pivot of then-societal beliefs, the film opts to steep viewers deep in the customs and habits of both modern and traditional Brazilian ethics; the magical realist angle derives its power from the sudden upset of those very ethics. If one is so inclined to the traditions of American storytelling, there is a firm bet that Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands will disappoint with its meandering structure. Those who appreciate the source material of the novel and richly-detailed narratives will view the film as an exploration of desire, abandonment, and loneliness; the fantasy element, therefore, becomes secondary.

In whatever way the story is received, the sincere and considerate performance of Braga will not be lost on the viewer. Braga manages to be vulnerable and audacious at once, turning in an earthy, sensual, and bold woman who begins as a meek and bewildered constituent of the story and transforms into a remarkable heroine who places her sexual and emotional entreaties alongside cultural expectations unabashedly.

Barreto indulges the viewer in a feast of Bahia’s urban side streets, apartment life, and local markets, honing the grand sweep of the story’s premise to the intimate quarters of city living. The sunlight-dappled cinematography (courtesy of award-winning director-of-photography Murilo Salles), which reveals a city in the constant upheavals of daily life, merges a visual sense of rust and vibrancy in raw, naturalistic form. All elements of performance and presentation combine to deliver the sweetness and bitterness of a peculiar romance, where fantasies become as real as the ground we walk on.

Film Movements’ transfer of the film has cleaned up the print considerably, although there are some defects visible. While colors are indeed natural and rich, they seem muted by the somewhat faded print. Images, however, are fairly crisp, despite a large amount of grain, and Film Movement delivers a Blu-ray that is probably the best this film has ever looked in any home-viewing format so far. There are two audio tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 audio. The sound, at times, comes across as a little tinny; the dialogue, however, is very clear and isn’t harmed by any limitations of the audio. The film is presented in Portuguese with optional English subtitles.  

The supplements are slim but wonderful. Film Movement presents a behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of the film – a true time capsule of both Brazil and Brazilian-filmmaking during the 1970s. There is also an informative audio commentary by the director, and a 16-page essay booklet on the film.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is not likely to hit home with the wider public; the story certainly shows its age and some of the cultural attitudes towards women (particularly Flor’s forgiving and sometimes ingratiating behavior towards her husband’s abuse) might put several people off. But there is true rhythm and purpose here and all parties conspire to do Amado’s source novel proper justice and deliver a story that still retains its spicy flavor decades on. Hollywood, in its usual opportunistic fashion, remade this film in 1982 as Kiss Me Goodbye, directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Sally Field, James Caan and Jeff Bridges. Possibly worried that some of the source material’s elements were too risqué for commercial audiences, the passion and soul (and sex) had all been completely exorcised from the original story. Mulligan’s film is now a Hollywood afterthought, if even. But the heart and soul of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands belong entirely to Brazil, where such a film would have you believe that real magic is quiet but always alive – and as commonplace as a penny.       

RATING 8 / 10