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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe not quite so sexy as it seemed, but still worth a look"
3 stars

The recently restored and re-released "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" is billed as a sex comedy, but it really doesn't get into that material until fairly late in its second half, and the forty-odd years since its original release have not been kind to its first half. It's just good enough and interesting enough that viewers will spend time figuring out how to make it work for them, maybe coming to a different conclusion in the twenty-first century than they would have at the time.

It kicks off with Valdomiro "Vadinho" Santos Guimarães (José Wilker), the first of the two husbands, dropping dead of some sort of heart attack or stroke during Carnival in 1943, right in the middle of getting in the face of some lady dancing her way down the streets of Bahia. They've been married for seven years, and Vadinho was ducking out to the casinos and the brothels right on their wedding night, and during which time he's not contributed much aside from good sex. Afterward, a friend sets Flor (Sonia Braga) up with sweet middle-aged pharmacist Dr. Teodoro Madureira (Mauro Mendonça), and he's nice, but when Vadinho's naked ghost returns, it's clear that she's been missing something.

That's awful close to the whole movie, and while getting to the midway point before introducing Teodoro may be how Jorge Amado's original novel is structured for all I know, it is an awful lot of Vadinho being just an unrepentant piece of garbage to get through before the audience gets to see Flor weighing him against Teodoro. It's not time that is completely wasted; director Bruno Barreto uses it to establish Flor as a sensible and respectable young woman who likes the sex enough to stick with Vadinho despite his less admirable qualities, even if a good middle-class woman can't just say that, and it probably doesn't hurt to take some time to establish Vadinho as pretty gifted in that area. The amount of it is aggravating, though, perhaps more so 43 years after its initial release, when the line between which men are lovable ne'er-do-wells and which ones are abusive parasites has likely shifted somewhat. One may not necessarily judge Flor too harshly for her choices, but Barreto may be presenting Vadinho as more entertaining than he now appears.

So what to make of his return? Oddly, that part works well enough that one might like to trade a bit of the living Vadniho for more time with his ghost. There are entire movies to be made around Flor struggling with the fact that she still wants her old husband in bed even as her new one is a better man and closer to what society says she is supposed to want, both reflective and farcical, but Barreto seems to short-change the film here, with detours into the ghost helping his friend in the casino and Teodoro seldom doing more than passing through scenes with Flor and Vadinho. Those moments are funny, and Sonia Braga does nice work in letting the guilt Flor feels for still wanting Vadinho pass across her face, but a film with this premise isn't necessarily the time to be subtle about Flor deciding what to retain and what to jettison from her first marriage.

Braga is generally quite impressive enough in the movie that served as her international breakthrough; it's easy to initially read Flor as a "good girl" with a secret, shameful sexuality, but she never actually seems to be switching faces: The way she doesn't shrink from what she gets out of her relationship lines right up with how she calmly talks about making good food. She's sensual and even if she doesn't flaunt it or giggle about it like the other women in the film, she knows herself. José Wilker gives what's often a genuinely funny performance as Vadinho, a confidence that is just larger enough than his present circumstances to make for a good gag. He's got a genuinely nasty vibe in Vadinho's worst moments, too, bringing just enough of that out in the last act when he knows that even if he can't actually hit Flor, she's all but powerless to do anything about his unwanted presence.

And for all the film's faults, it's still kind of remarkable to see that Barreto was something like twenty-one when he made it. It may be wrong-headedly confident in certain ways, but it does have the nice quality of looking better on a closer examination even if it originally rubs one the wrong way. "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" is an interesting thing to rediscover with its new restoration, undoubtedly a bit dated but still worth chewing on a bit.

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originally posted: 05/01/20 05:44:12
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  21-Jan-1978 (R)
  DVD: 30-Dec-2008

  N/A (18)

  11-Sep-1980 (R)

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