Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) Review: polyamory and embodiment of the sexual revolution
Based on the book of the same name by Jorge Amado (1966), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976), directed by Bruno Barreto, became one of the most successful Brazilian films in the history of the country until years later in the 2000s, when a crime thriller film took over.
Dona Flor won BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes nominations which remarked its position in the international filmmaking industry. And, at the same time, it launched Sônia Braga’s career into worldwide stardom consolidating her in Hollywood.
Set in the 1940s in Bahia, professional cook Dona Flor (Sônia Braga) has the financial stability she needs, however, her depraved husband Vadinho (José Wilker) gambles her money away. Until one day he drops dead while dancing at a street party during carnival season. As Dona Flor laments the loss of her husband, the rest of the community is happy for her. While she moves on from her mourning time, Dona Flor meets pharmacist Teodoro (Mauro Mendonça) who brings to her life the stable life she longed for. Nevertheless, she is still missing something. Insert perverted Vadinho’s ghost visit.
Polyamorous or just abuse?
Beaten, ashamed, and betrayed, Dona Flor pardons all the devilish actions that her first husband does. Not delving into the abuse that Dona Flor suffered, but portraying it as if it’s her deep love, which is based on her sexual desires.
By forgiving him and not addressing her abuse, the film portrays her life as a mutually open relationship (by the end of the film). Depicting forgiveness and love, mixed with sexual desires and domestic violence, the film gives an old-fashioned view of domestic abuse. The latter is something that should never be romanticized such as the film does. Result of its time? Most likely. Despite this, her repressed sexual desires and open-mind, allow her to move on and accept her true self. The story is her journey.
The camera and their relationship
The shots are subjective and reveal more about the male characters and the situation of Dona Flor. When with Vadinho, Dona Flor is always at a certain distance from him, and so does the camera. The shaky handheld camera reveals often the state of Vadinho but also the shaky relationship between them.
Her relationship is fragile as Vadinho gambles all her money away and has numerous affairs. With Teodoro, the shots don’t shake and present him on medium to close-ups. Touching and kissing Dona Flor on the forehead and placing carefully his hand on her, differentiates the aggressive and intense relationship that Dona Flor has with Vadinho. Two different styles for two different characters and relationships. But still, both evoking the love that Dona Flor has for both men.
Is this an ode to polyamorous love? In my opinion, no. Polyamorous, as I define here, is: “the practice of having sexual or romantic relationships with two or more people at the same time, or relating to this practice” (Cambridge dictionary). Indeed, she has a relationship with both, but only one is aware of that, which wouldn’t count as a polyamorous relationship.
Nevertheless, this film is the first step into understanding that love and sexual satisfaction can be different for some people and that loving one person does not take away loving the other person. In this case, Dona Flor and Vadinho are polyamorous, but not in a polyamorous relationship as the third party is not aware of this ménage.
The society pressure
Telling Vadinho that she is an ‘’honest woman’’ and only loyal to her new husband presents the inner struggles that Dona Flor has while trying to disclose her sexual feelings, which implies that still, Dona Flor conforms to the society’s norms of that time (the 40s). When she is with Teodoro, she quits her job and organizes ‘’perfect’’ parties, being the aspiration of the local community.
However, when she is the breadwinner and enjoys her feminine pleasures, people pity her, imposing society’s view on her. Dona Flor believes a stable relationship and status is everything she is looking for until something is missing that only an outsider of society (in that time) can bring: sexual satisfaction.
In this sense, Dona Flor is in-between two facets. One is accepting loving two people at the same time. The other is accepting her carnal longings. By doubting but still moving forward into her desires, Dona Flor embodies the change that emerged within women during the story (the 1940s) and while producing the film (the 1970s).
In Brazil, after 1945, counterculture focussed on topics of patriarchy, women’s rights and homosexuality. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that this counterculture spurred a sexual revolution with a new wave of social movements, limited by the Brazilian dictatorship that suppressed them. In 1988, women were declared equal to men in the constitution (Sueann Caulfield and Cristiana Schettini, 2017, Oxford). Therefore, Dona Flor is the embodiment of this transformation. Her doubts and desires reflect the zeitgeist of that time.
The performances and music
Writing about Dona Flor without mentioning the masterful performance of Sônia Braga, who with a glance can reveal a million feelings would be a sin. Alongside the unforgettable devilish performance of José Wilker as Vadinho, both actors make a wonderful combo and chemistry that is irrefutable.
Listening to the soundtrack by iconic masters of Brazil’s music (Chico Buarque and Francis Him) immerse the viewer into the time, changes and longing of Dona Flor with a mix of samba and jazz. Haunting you after the film is over.
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands explores women’s sexuality but also the role of women in society. Both male protagonists in the story represent two different versions of a changing society that gives Dona Flor, women, the opportunity to choose.
Loving various people at the same time and for different reasons can be possible, and Dona Flor gives a masterful and delicate highlight to the still not-much-talked topic of feminine pleasure and sexuality.
Taking into consideration the embodiment and historical context of Dona Flor makes this feature an enjoyable comedy that brings more than a smile to one’s face. It’s a film that marked a generation and addresses themes that are still relevant to today’s society.
First published on Surrounded by Films.