The MUBI Podcast returns with a look at Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, a film that nearly beat Jaws at the Brazilian box office and turned Sonia Braga from national star to national deity.
Below, host Rico Gagliano interviews the film’s director Bruno Barreto. Barreto goes beyond the conversation featured in episode 3 and discusses his love for John Ford, Pietro Germi and Francois Truffaut and shares more behind-the-scenes details about the making of Dona Flor.
To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here.
RICO GAGLIANO: Tell me about the first film you remember having an impact on you, and when that was.
BRUNO BARRETO: Well, I was very impressed always by American cinema. My Darling Clementine, John Ford's masterpiece, was something that really made a huge impact on me.
GAGLIANO: What about it?
BARRETO: I mean, the story itself. The realism. At the same time, the poetry; the shots, the depth of field, the heavy clouds, the cinematography, the pace. It kept me interested, but it wasn't fast-paced. There weren't too many cuts. But I was completely drawn into it, you know? I was emotionally engaged.
And of course, you know, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, most of Elia Kazan's movies. A Face in the Crowd, On the Waterfront— such a masterpiece.
And then the Italian neorealism. Almost all films by Pietro Germi. Seduced and Abandoned, Il Ferroviere—I forget what the title in English is—Divorce, Italian Style. Pietro Germi in my opinion was a genius, you know?
And of course, then the nouvelle vague with Francois Truffaut. I'm a Truffaut guy, not a Godard guy. I'm a romantic. And I even dedicated one of my films, Bossanova, to Truffaut.
GAGLIANO: I can see all of these things... As you're saying it, I can see them all in Dona Flor, especially the neorealism and the slower pace of John Ford.
BARRETO: Yeah. I'm completely character-driven. Although I come from photography. I used to be a photographer. I started making movies with my Bolex—actually it wasn't mine, it was borrowed from a friend of my father’s—and I loved, you know, holding the camera and framing. And so I thought that I wanted to be a DP, a director of photography. But nobody would call me or hire me. [Laughs] I was 13 years old! So I had to direct in order to DP. To do the photography. Because what I really liked was to look through the camera and frame it.
But then I would show these films in the basement of my parent's home where I lived, with a 16 millimeter projector. And I would enjoy how people would react. I would edit them and put some music, and they would laugh or have some kind of reaction. And that took me to becoming a storyteller. I said "Oh, that's fun, to get those reactions." And that's when I became a storyteller.
I really love telling stories. And I'm driven by characters. If I have an empathy and a curiosity about the characters in a story, I want to tell that story.
GAGLIANO: You made your first film, Tati, at age 17, I understand?
GAGLIANO: Tell us the story, first of all, of that film. Just a quick synopsis of what that movie is about.
BARRETO: Well, that's a short story that I read in high school. Because... I was in high school! I was 17 years old! And I shot it in the winter vacation, which down here is in July. It was a quick shoot, so I could shoot in four weeks, five weeks, just in the month of July. And I read this short story in class and I loved it. And I was very touched by [the story of] a single mom, who had to move from the outskirts of Rio into Copacabana, which is like the center of Rio. And it was her six-year-old daughter, and her. And she made a living making dresses and sewing for the women who lived near her. It's very much about the adaptation of this girl, and the kids there are more violent. And I was very moved by that. And I decided to tell that story.
I don't know how I did it, 'cause looking back, I was 17! I should be doing something else! But I was a nerd. I still am. And with girls I couldn't get arrested. So I think I had to, you know, become successful first in order to get lucky!
GAGLIANO: [Laughs]! It's the age-old story: you go into art to get a date.
GAGLIANO: It's interesting to me, because from a very early age, you're making movies with women as the central characters. And I don't think of that as a common thing for filmmakers of any age, in any country at that time. Why do you think that's the case?
BARRETO: That's Truffaut. For me, going to the movies was to really start a trip. To go into a voyage. And women were... You know, for me, women are magic. Men are boring. And women are mysterious. So I think I wanted to deconstruct them, but at the same time not understand them totally, because otherwise the magic would be gone.
You know, I remember seeing Jacquie Bisset in a film with Tony Franciosa. I forget the name of the movie now, but she was in a white bikini getting out of the ocean. And Tony Franciosa is waiting for her on the sand. And I was like, "Wow."
GAGLIANO: What did you learn on Tati that you took with you into Dona Flor three years later?
BARRETO: I learned a lot in the sense of how to set up the shots. And how to achieve a certain kind of emotion that I wanted to get, through the use of, you know, when to move the camera, why to move the camera.
But at the same time, once you've learned enough, one thing I keep trying to get back is the freedom I had when I made Tati, when I didn't know much. You know, that is exhilarating, that freedom. And of course, I'm never gonna have that freedom again because I know I learned a lot. But I'm trying to kind of forget! [Laughs] Or pretend that I don't know much, and really rescue that freedom.
GAGLIANO: Yeah. That [feeling of], when you don't know the rules, not even being aware that you're breaking them.
BARRETO: Yeah. You know, Roberto Rossellini wrote a book. Beautiful book. In French, it's Un Esprit Libre Ne Doit Rien Apprendre (A Free Spirit Has Nothing To Learn).
GAGLIANO: Let's move on to Dona Flor. What was the writing process, adapting the story from the book?
BARRETO: Dona Flor kind of breaks all the rules of screenwriting, of the structure of screenwriting. Because if you look at that film structurally, it's two big prologues! You know: "Look at her life with her first husband." Then you have a segment. Then: "Here's her life with her second husband." OK—she isn't happy. And then—the ghost of the first husband comes back. So that's when the conflict starts!
GAGLIANO: Two hours into the movie.
BARRETO: Yeah! That's just the last third! So the conflict only starts in the third act! I mean it really subverses all the rules of screenwriting.
We decided to really structure in a way that was not [as] baroque [as the book]. And really focused on her, and tell the story through her point of view—if not 100 percent of the time, 99 percent of the time.
And that was the biggest challenge for the screenwriters and I, because we didn't want to tell the audience—for those who believe in black magic or, you know, the supernatural—we didn't want to say, "Oh this is all bullshit." You know, "There's no ghost of her first husband. This is just her wishful thinking. It's a psychological projection." We didn't want to do that. We wanted to walk that line right on the middle. For those who believe in magic, who believe in spirits and ghosts, go ahead! And for those who are more rational like me, it's her wishful thinking. It's a projection. That's why only she sees him.
GAGLIANO: Why was that important to you? To walk that line?
BARRETO: Because I think the story should go beyond that. And in the place where the story takes place, Bahia—which is kind of the New Orleans of Brazil—it’s very much part of that culture. All the ghosts and legends and stories and myths. So I like that double edge. And I think that made it more complex, you know.
GAGLIANO: And it feels to me you're making a movie that's really about the wants of the heart, and not the mind. So in a way this isn't just a psychological manifestation. There is something physically—even if it is psychological—there’s something physically tangible about it.
BARRETO: You nailed it. In all my films—although I've been in analysis since I was 13, and I'm very rational—at the same time, I want people to engage emotionally with my films, not rationally. Really not. My main goal when I tell a story, is to reach the audience emotionally. But not manipulating and not using the music in an exaggerated way. You know: moving the audience in an honest way—let’s say that.
GAGLIANO: Tell us about the importance of the book in Brazil, and even beyond Brazil.
BARRETO: Well, Jorge Amado is the most famous, really internationally-known Brazilian author. Before Dona Flor came out, MGM had [already] bought the rights of [the Amado novel] Gabriella. Which I ended up directing, with Sonia Braga and Marcello Mastroianni. But it didn't turn out a good film. It's not—it’s a bad film.
BARRETO: Some people like it. There's a great score by Antonio Carlos Jobim, who's one of the greatest composers in history—[I’m] not [just saying that] because he's Brazilian, everybody says that. But, the film didn't turn out well because... I didn't know why I wanted to tell that story. Because I think more important than the story you're telling, is why you want to tell that story. You know, what do you want to tell that story for? What are you talking about?
GAGLIANO: What was the "why" for you, for Dona Flor?
BARRETO: For "Dona Flor," for me, it was exactly this conundrum: “How can a woman be happy?” Because, going back to me—young and being a nerd and wanting to be accepted by a woman, and a woman who I would fall in love with—you know, what is her mystery? What is her Rosebud? [Laughs]! You know? But not only of Dona Flor, but what is the female Rosebud?
Now, I didn't have the arrogance to think that I was going to find it or actually, you know, deconstruct it and show it. But at least get close to it. Hint at it.
GAGLIANO: What do you think the movie is saying, then, at the end? 'Cause what it seems to be saying is "Yes, you deserve to have a husband who treats you well, but you also need to have the spice of a ‘bad boy.’” You know, the frisson of sex. But the fact that the sex part is a ghost—a non tangible, non corporeal being—what is that saying? Is it saying, "If you have a good guy, that's enough, but in your head you can give it some spice?"
BARRETO: Catholicism. We are the biggest Catholic country in the world. So sex, sexuality, is like a ghost. Very, very hidden and disguised, but—exactly because of that—very, very strong. And very potent.
So I think that's the Rosebud, let's say. [Laughs] That's really the essence of what Dona Flor is about. And at the end, she's leaving the church with her two husbands, but only she sees [the ghost of Vadinho].
And that's not in the book! That scene was never in the book. There was never a scene in which she would leave the church with two husbands,..
And that was an ordeal, to shoot that. First of all, the author of the book was against it. He said "It's an inconsequent ending. You just want to be provocative, in a shallow way.” when he saw the movie, he said, "No, that's a great ending. It's perfect.” But [at first] he thought it was just, a flip, totally inconsequent ending.
But I've been saying this for a while; I wasn't aware of that when I did it. When I did it, it was all intuitive. But there was something… you know, I wanted that scene. The producers, among them my parents, thought that that was going to be cut. And it wasn't.
GAGLIANO: Oh, by the by the state.
BARRETO: By the censorship. And it wasn't.
GAGLIANO: Why not, do you think?
BARRETO: Uh... I don't know. You know, the board of censors, they don't make sense most of the time.
GAGLIANO: Tell me about Sonia Braga at this time. She'd been on TV and in some movies, yes?
BARRETO: Yeah, she had done, on TV, [the telenovela] "Gabriela." Which is [adapted from] another book by Jorge Amado. And we’d decided to make [Dona Flor] right after the soap opera had finished airing.
So the first thing we said—the producers, the screenwriters and I—was, "No. Sonia Braga? No! Because she's completely identified as Gabriella.” And Gabriella couldn't be more different than Dona Flor.
GAGLIANO: What is that character like?
BARRETO: Gabriella is a wild girl from the backlands of Bahia. Dona Flor is a middle-class housewife, conservative, short hair, a little chubby, and... Gabrielle is very skinny, long hair, wild, beautiful.
So I started to test many, many actresses, and this took like almost 10 months! And I couldn't find anybody that I liked. And then, the screenwriters, the producers and I said, "Well, you know, we could change Sonia Braga. We could, cut her hair and... She's an actress. Why not? This is, like, a prejudice!" [Laughs] You know, she was right there in front of us, but we just couldn't see her as Dona Flor.
GAGLIANO: Tell me about the first time you met her, or were aware of her as a presence. 'Cause when people talk about her, particularly from Brazil, it's like talking about, I don't know, God.
BARRETO: [Laughs] Well, Sonia is like the Sophia Loren of Brazil. And Sophia Loren is pretty close to God. So I guess Sonia is up there!
Sonia is... Sonia is much more than an actress, because Sonia becomes the character. She really becomes the character. She doesn't get into what I hear Daniel-Day Lewis gets into—“Oh, only call me by the character's name," and gets mad at whoever doesn't call him by the character's name. But she becomes the character. Once we start shooting, I just have to be very careful to not get in her way.
Actually this is valid for any great actor. I agree with what Meryl Streep said: that forty five percent of the directors don't know what they're doing and get in the way. Forty-five don't know what they're doing, but don't get in the way. And ten percent know how to direct. [Laughs]. I totally agree with that! With Sonia's it's like that. She just becomes the character, and I modulate here and there.
GAGLIANO: I was actually quite impressed with [the actor who plays Vadinho], Jose Wilker, who I was not familiar with before watching this movie. Tell me about him. Was he known at the time?
BARRETO: Yes, he was very known. He is a completely different species. Jose is a very technical actor—great actor—but exactly the opposite of Sonia. The actor who plays the second husband also is a great comedian, and also sort of similar to Jose Wilker as an actor. More theater-trained.
So the biggest challenge for me was to make sure that they were all in the same "key." Because Sonia likes to improvise. And the other actors didn't like that much. They wanted to stay more within the boundaries of the script, what was written.
GAGLIANO: What was the most fun shooting his stuff? 'Cause he seems like he's having a great time in this movie.
BARRETO: [Laughs] He was very, very intense. With Sonia it was always very light and a lot of fun. And with Mauro Mendonca, who plays the second husband, too. With Wilker... he's very intense and very concentrated and focused, so there wasn't much room to improvise or to have fun with it, or to try this or that.
But when he was bored to death because he had to be inside the coffin—that’s when he was most fun. Because he had nothing to do. And whenever I said "cut," he would stand up out of the coffin and just say, you know, things that are hilarious and playing with everybody. We had a lot of laughs doing... I think it was about two or three nights that were shooting that wake.
GAGLIANO: During the funeral scene you had a buncha laughs! [Laughs].
BARRETO: During the funeral scene, yeah! He said, "Oh, I'm so bored here, and so hot! Oh, tonight this team is playing!" So he wanted to have a little radio inside. So he got listen to the soccer match.
GAGLIANO: Shooting the sex scenes, how did you get that sense of passion and also literal heat? You definitely get this feeling of steamy heat.
BARRETO: It’s total, total, total acting. It's all fake. Wilker was really, really uncomfortable. Hated doing the scenes. Sonia was very relaxed, very at ease. Actually as soon as I said "cut," an A.D. would cover her with a robe, and she would say, "No, no, no, if you don't mind I want to stay naked, so I get used to it." So she was very casual about it, very relaxed about it. And he was exactly the other extreme. Very, very uptight. And would, you know, scream at the A.D. if he wouldn't be covered right after I said "cut."
GAGLIANO: They’re completely the opposite of the characters they're playing, is the way that you're making this out.
BARRETO: Totally! Totally.
GAGLIANO: It's almost like actors are good at their jobs.Tell me some details in this movie that you think might be lost on people who are not of this culture.
BARRETO: Well, um... Hmm, that's a—that’s a tough question.
GAGLIANO: I know, because you are of this culture.
BARRETO: I hope the [details] aren't [lost]. Because when I make films—although I think it's very important to make them very specific and unique about where they take place—at the same time, I want to make sure that everybody all over the world will get it. And that's a major concern for me.
GAGLIANO: Even back then, when Brazilian films weren’t widely seen?
BARRETO: Oh, yeah. Even back then.
GAGLIANO: Why? Why was it so important?
Because I grew up watching American films and European movies in Brazil. And I felt transported. I felt like I was in the American west, or in Paris or in the French countryside when watching a Truffaut film, or in Rome or Milano or Naples watching a Pietro Germi film. So I always wanted the audience to feel the same when they watched a film I made.
But there is something that nobody could get, which is the sense of smell. When I was making the film, you know, the smell of Bahia—like the smell of the food—that’s something that I said this film should have, also. You know, the audience should... [Laughs] have a sense of the smell of the place! When she's cooking the food, you know. So it's not only people that are not Brazilian—people in Brazil didn't get that.
GAGLIANO: It's too bad.
BARRETO: Above all, I love to shoot food and kitchen. And I'm a chef—I’m a cook, I'm not going to call myself a chef—but I love to eat and cook. I always loved that since I was a teenager. My grandmother taught me how to cook. And so I took great pleasure in shooting those scenes in the kitchen. So I regret that, you know, the smell of the onions couldn't [laughs] come out of the screen!
GAGLIANO: Yes. The smell of raw onion on Vadinho's breath. I'm actually quite happy we didn't get that.
What were the box office expectations for the movie before it was released? Was it pegged to be as giant a hit as it was?
BARRETO: No, no, not at all. Not at all. They expected it to be big, but not as big as it was.
I give you an example: Jaws had been released just before. And a Brazilian film was never released with the same number of prints that an American film was—above all, a blockbuster like Jaws. And [Embrafilm] decided to release it exactly the same format as Jaws—the same number of prints. And it almost matched Jaws. The difference was two hundred thousand people only. Jaws had sold 11,000,000 tickets and Dona Flor sold 10,800,000 tickets.
GAGLIANO: Just barely! Were you kind of like, "Aw, just leave it in the theaters just a couple more months; I can beat Spielberg!"
BARRETO: Yeah, well actually, when I was married to Amy—you know, we have a son together and...
GAGLIANO: [Spielberg’s ex-wife] Amy Irving, yeah.
BARRETO: Yeah. I was married to her for 15 years. Anyway, I got to meet Steven, and I told him this story. I said, "You beat me by 200,000 people!" [Laughs] In my own country!
GAGLIANO: [Laughs] What did he say?
BARRETO: He laughed.
GAGLIANO: What was your first inkling that this thing was becoming enormous? Was there something tangible that happened where you realized, "oh, my God, this thing is exploding?".
BARRETO: Right away. The first weekend went through the roof. And exactly after the first weekend, Veja—which is the equivalent of TIME magazine in Brazil—wanted to have me and Sonia on the cover.
At the time, actually, I had just gotten married. And my daughter was just born. And I didn't have the money to pay the clinic where she was born—which was a very expensive clinic in Rio. And I was doing advertising films, commercials. I was actually hired as a commercial director in a big advertising agency, in order to make money and pay the bills, when the film opened.
GAGLIANO: And so [Dona Flor] opened and you're like: "I quit." [Laughs]
BARRETO: No, I actually kept going because they doubled my salary. And so I stayed there for another three or six months! Cause it was: "Now we have a commercial director on the cover of Brazil's Time magazine!" One of the accounts—it was a big ad agency—they had Seagrams, you know? And I did the commercial for the launching of their whiskey "House of Lords" in Brazil, which was huge.
GAGLIANO: What scenes have become sort of known staples of the cultural canon in Brazil? Are there scenes and lines that people quote—or maybe still quote today?
BARRETO: That final scene became like, I don't know, a symbol, really iconic. And also the song. You know, that song is Chico Buarque's most famous song.
GAGLIANO: [The song] that's playing over that last scene.
BARRETO: Yeah. And people who are like less than 50 years old, they think that that song existed, and I used it. If you are not 50, you don't know that that song was made for the film. It's huge.
So that image of Sonia Braga walking out the church with a naked husband, you know, two men... And as they turn, he is holding her butt...
GAGLIANO: [Laughs]. That became, you know, totally iconic.
And, you know, the house where I shot the film in Salvador became a museum! They kept it exactly the way it was. People from all over the world would go there and sign the book. New Zealand, you name it.
Is it still there?
BARRETO: It's still there. At the time, a lot of people. But then the film is not being shown a lot these days. So there aren't a lot of people that go there. But at the time it was, you know, Where is Dona Flor's house?