I’ve written a few times about my experiences seeing foreign films during the late 70s and early 80s when my mother, and then I, worked for a company called New Yorker Films. I remember quite clearly a conversation my mother and I had about Dona Flor and her Two Husbands as we exited the theater:
Me: “I guess the point of the film is that women need two husbands.”
Mom snapped: “One’s more than enough trouble!”
I giggle when I think about this. I was very young at the time. Watching the film decades later, I was certain to have a different reaction, I thought.
Current reaction: “I guess the point of the film is that women need two husbands.”
Yep, pretty much the same.
Based on the novel by Jorge Amado and directed by Bruno Baretto (who I had the pleasure of speaking to on the phone once or twice when I worked at New Yorker films) Dona Flor and her Two Husbands was the highest grossing film in Brazil for almost 35 years. Shot in Salvador de Bahia, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Being a sex comedy starring one of Brazil’s most popular and beautiful actresses, Sonia Braga, helped it keep its crown for several decades.
The story opens in 1943 during Carnival. Vadinho (Jose Wilker) and his friends are out celebrating and dancing in the streets. Vadinho suddenly collapses and dies instantly. He has led such a dissipated life that he dies in his early thirties from a diseased liver and kidneys.
His wife Flor (Braga) is devastated by the loss of her husband, though many of her friends think this is a fortunate turn of events for her. In a long flashback sequence, we discover Vadinho was not good for much except as an exciting lover in the bedroom. He was a gambler, a womanizer, and beat Flor to get money to cover his gambling debts.
Soon after Vadinho’s death, Flor begins to receive the attentions of the local pharmacist, Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça), a respectable but boring man. Flor agrees to marry him. She discovers during the honeymoon that Teodoro is a dud in the bedroom. But he is an attentive and caring man, a hard worker, and someone she can be proud of as a wife. She convinces herself that she is happy with her new life.
One night, a naked Vadinho appears in her bedroom. Only she can see him. He claims that she called for him to return to her. She tries to send him away but he’s always around the house, sometimes watching her make love to her current husband and laughing hysterically.
Flor decides to get rid of him once and for all by having a ceremony done to exorcise him from her life. As he starts to fade away, she calls him back and the two make love. Soon Vadihno is sleeping in the same bed with Flor and Teodoro and accompanying them both while they leave church—walking down the street stark naked while patting Flor’s bottom.
Researching the film for this post, I was kind of surprised—though not as much upon reflection—to find that many reviews are snippy and dismissive. Complaints range from the flashback sequence being too long, the comedy being too broad (or not broad enough, go figure), the story not having anything to say about anything, etc.
I think I can guess at the cause of at least some of the griping. The film (and the original Amado novel) create a situation where a woman finds a way to gain satisfaction in every area of her life, and suffers nary a consequence for it. The walk down the street with her two husbands is a sharp slap in the face of the idea that women can’t have everything they want out of life. Flor wants stability and a quiet, simple bourgeois life, while also having access to some flaming hot sex whenever she wants it, and that’s exactly what she gets.
Most women aren’t going to have the convenience of a dead (and dead sexy) husband who will oblige her with the latter without denying her the former. But it’s quite the fantasy for women.
The film and other variations of the novel are still popular. Just this year, Mexican TV produced a telenovela based on the novel. There is an American (though unfortunately not as sexy) version of the film called Kiss Me Goodbye. There have also been successful stage productions.
Dona Flor and her Two Husbands has many things to recommend it: a colorful portrait of Brazilian life during the 1940s, the lovely Braga, and, surprise, surprise, a sex comedy focused on a woman with agency. Not bad for a film four decades old.