The Producer and His Two Ghosts

in 14th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by José Carlos Avellar

If we recall the tale of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976), it may help us understand the career strategy of the film’s producers, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto. During this year’s Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, the Barretos will receive FIPRESCI’s Latin American Cinema Award.

Let’s retrace the storyline of this very successful movie: based on a novel by Jorge Amado, the film is directed by Bruno Barreto and concerns the two marriages of Floripedes Guimarães, known as Dona Flor. Her first marriage is to the handsome, sexy, good-for-nothing Vadinho, who on their wedding night leaves his wife at home to drink and gamble at a brothel. The second marriage, which takes place after the death of Vadinho, is to a shy, gentlemanly pharmacist named Teodoro, a man who gives his new wife a respectful good night kiss on the forehead. During her first marriage, Dona Flor works hard teaching her neighbors to cook while Vadinho spends her money on gambling and prostitutes. In her current marriage, Flor attends pharmaceutical conferences and science meetings; she is very happy with Teodoro, but also misses the erotic presence of Vadinho. Eventually, the ghost of Vadinho comes to haunt Flor, although it turns out to be a happy haunting.

Let’s freely imagine this story as a kind of metaphorical representation for the way that the Barretos’ production (and Brazilian film production in general) has evolved from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. During that time we have moved from an era of very undisciplined auteur films to an era of disciplined producers’ films. Let me exaggerate a little (or a lot) and say that we once lived in a period when films could be produced without a producer. Let me imagine that the contemporary film industry is a kind of haunted house, in which one must move between the ghosts of two husbands. To produce a film requires a realistic partner (production formulas, distribution and exhibition markets) as well as a happy ghost (the invention of new models of authorship for cinema).

In some ways, Jorge Amado’s comments about Dona Flor – that she succeeded in living and being happy with two very different husbands – may be seen as a representation of the Barretos’ career. Their Cinema Novo films involved bringing a happy ghost to a well-organized production house: this was the situation with Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Garrincha, The People’s Happiness (Garrincha alegria do povo, 1962), Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Barren Lives (Vidas secas, 1963), Roberto Santos’ The Hour and Turn of Augusto Matraga (A hora e vez de Augusto Matraga. 1965), and Glauber Rocha’s Land Entrance (Terra em transe, 1967).

Post-Dona Flor, the films of the following years introduced a Teodoro-like character to a happy haunted house: the results included Andrade’s Conjugal Warfare (Guerra conjugal, 1976), Carlos Diegues’ Bye Bye Brasil (1979), Bruno Barreto’s Beloved Lover (Amor bandido, 1982), Walter Lima Jr.’s Innocence (Inocência,1983), Santos’ Memoirs of Prison (Memórias do cárcere, 1984), and Fábio Barreto’s The Four Game (O quatrilho, 1995).

In brief, the storyline of Dona Flor shows us half the picture. The way of telling the story shows us the other half: the adaptation of Amado’s novel was written by a fiction screenwriter (Leopoldo Serran, who would go on to work on the screenplays of Bye Bye Brasil, Beloved Lover and The Four Game), in co-operation with a filmmaker specializing in documentaries (Eduardo Coutinho, who has recently made Jogo de Cena and As Canções.)

This mixing of documentary and fiction creates a style of storytelling which moves spontaneously from careful design to improvised gesture: a gesture that relates to the novel and also to the culture of popular theater and carnival in Bahia. More importantly, it also reflects the narrative experiments of the Cinema Novo era. But to see the storyline as a metaphor for film production, we need to realize one thing. Yes, Flor and Teodoro’s drugstore can be seen as an analogy for a production company in which two kinds of films happily co-exist. However, we must also pay attention to the fact that the house is not only the location in which an undisciplined author’s cinema is cured through medicine. It is also the place in which science was enlightened by a free-spirited ghost, and cinema should keep trying to reflect that spirit.

Edited by Lesley Chow