This Brazilian fantasy/romance did well on the American arthouse circuit, giving director Bruno Baretto and leading lady Sônia Braga significant international exposure, and for decades afterward, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands reigned as the most successful film in Brazilian box-office history. The movie even got an American remake, although Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)—with Jeff Bridges, James Caan, and Sally Field—took considerable liberties with the storyline. Watching Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands today, it’s hard to guess why folks got so excited about the picture during its original release. American audiences might have been titillated by sexual content, and Brazilian viewers might have connected with the hints of magical realism, a storytelling style that’s always fared better in Central and South America than in the United States. Or maybe everyone just grooved on the risqué premise, because thanks to a supernatural contrivance, the title character has a threesome of sorts. In any event, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is an awkward piece of work, though of course it’s possible something was lost in translation.
Set in Rio during the 1940s, the picture begins with bon vivant Vadinho (José Wilker) dying suddenly in the midst of a street party. His wife, Dona (Braga), surprises friends and relatives by grieving his loss, seeing as how they all knew Vadinho was irresponsible and unfaithful. The movie then kicks into an excessively long flashback telling the story of the couple’s marriage. Vadinho was a cad, no question, but he helped Dona evolve from a repressed prude to a fully realized sexual being, so her love for his carnal gifts trumped her resentment over being mistreated. Cutting back to the present, the film explores Dona’s impending second marriage to a boring pharmacist, Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça). Just as Dona resigns herself to a quiet life, Vadinho returns as a ghost, and somehow Dona is able to interact with him physically. Hence the title—a supernatural phenomenon allows Dona to enjoy the stability of her second marriage as well as the sexual thrills of her first.
Setting aside some dodgy gender politics, the big problem with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is that the premise doesn’t manifest until the final act of the film. As such, viewers are left perplexed as to whether Vadinho’s return is “real” or simply a byproduct of Dona’s grief. (The American remake fixed this problem by moving the dead husband’s return much earlier the film.) Another narrative speed bump: Vadinho is such a horrible human being than it’s no fun watching him treat Dona like garbage everywhere except in bed. Nonetheless, Baretto presents the story energetically, and the actors all give highly committed performances, with Braga the standout. While her sexiness commands attention, the depth of her characterization is of greater importance, since she’s believable at every stage of Dona’s strange journey.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands: FUNKY