If the name of Sonia Braga fails to ring any bells with you, hang about for a while. It will. And quite soon, according to the critics.
When her movie "I Love You" was shown at Cannes four years ago, the critic from Newsweek was so bowled over that he penned a paean of praise that has yet to be equaled.
"The festival revealed the most life-enhancing movie star in the world to be Brazil's Sonia Braga," he wrote. "She becomes something brand-new on the screen, the first true post-Sophia Loren star, a woman of blazing beauty and energy with a courageous sexual explicitness. . . ."
Cap that if you can.
This life-enhancing movie star was in town the other day talking about her latest movie, Hector Babenco's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," in which she stars with William Hurt and Raul Julia. (It opens in Westwood Friday.)
And moving about like a malcontented cat on the sofa of her hotel suite, flashing her protean eyes, semaphoring her meaning with her hands, barefoot and clad just in a pink jump suit, her dark hair cascading to her waist, her lipsticked mouth like a target ringed on a war map, it was clear that she doesn't have to try too hard to make an impression.
"Wasn't that wonderful of him (the Newsweek critic) to write that about me?" she said. "At the time, my English was not so good, so it had to be read to me when I got back from Cannes. I was so thrilled, so proud to be Brazilian."
Of course, discerning critics have been paying attention to this 5-foot-3, 35-year-old actress ever since she appeared in Bruno Barreto's 1978 movie "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," a movie that outgrossed "Jaws" in Brazil and made many Americans aware for the first time of that country's growing movie industry. When she made "Gabriela" with Marcello Mastroianni, based on Jorge Amado's best seller, she won even more admirers. One of them was Mastroianni, who decided, on reflection, that she was "much woman."
And "much woman" is Mastroianni's highest accolade for the female sex, the equivalent of a 9 on anyone's scale.
By this time it was not just critics who were singing her praises. Arnold Jabor, who directed her in "I Love You," waxed equally lyrical whenever asked.
"She is one of the rare actresses in the history of cinema to combine great acting ability with an overpowering sexual presence," he said. "She has a silver nitrate soul." Coming from a director she respected--even if she did have to fight with him to get to see the dailies of "I Love You"--that was almost as good as being called "life enhancing."
But "Kiss of the Spider Woman," her first movie filmed in English, is the one that could propel this animated actress onto the international scene. She says she is happy enough to be a name in Brazil but, with the cruzeiro skidding daily, she agrees it would be nice to be paid in dollars. And her English is now good enough.
"When I made 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' I still couldn't speak it well," she said. "Sometimes I would say a line and wonder, 'What does it mean?' Now I feel much more secure."
Because Sonia Braga is a serious actress, the fact that she has in the past posed nude for Playboy confuses some people.
Has she any regrets?
"No. Why?" she asked, apparently surprised at the question. "In Brazil, it is not unusual to do that if you are a singer or an actress. If you are asked to do it, as I was, why not? I am not ashamed of my body. . . ."
She never has been, it soon becomes clear. When she was in the chorus of "Hair" in Sao Paulo, she was nude onstage and one of the first people to applaud was her grandfather. She was then 18.
"Sooner or later, everyone asks me about sex," she said. "I didn't invent it, but I think it healthy to talk about it. That does not mean I'm not shy. I am. If I'm in love with someone, I often find it very difficult to express myself, to find the right words. But when the camera is on me, everything changes. ("It does," says director Jabor. "The moment the director says 'Action,' she transforms herself into a sensual, commanding personality.")
Braga is immensely proud of her work in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," a complex and involved story of friendship and love that explores the relationship between two men in a South American prison cell--Valentin, played by Raul Julia, and Molina, played by William Hurt, named best actor at Cannes this year. (Burt Lancaster, originally asked to play the role, had to withdraw due to illness.)
Molina, a gay window dresser, entertains his friend, a political prisoner, with fanciful narratives drawn from some of his favorite old movies--and it is in these fantasies that Braga appears.
"When I first read the book (by Manuel Puig), I loved it," she said. "I realized that here was a man who placed men and women on the same level. And the play (which was staged with great success both in Rio and Sao Paulo) was a success. So when Hector Babenco came to me and offered me a role in the film, I was delighted. At first, he wanted me to play just one part, that of Marta (Julia's ex-girlfriend), but later he decided I should play all three." (The other two are the Spider Woman, a fantasy figure, and a chanteuse in the film within the film.)
The movie, for her, is something of a family affair. Her mother, Zeze Braga, made all her clothes for the film and her sister, Ana Maria Braga, has a small role in it.
The film, produced by David Weisman, has already opened well in New York, and Braga confesses that she has high hopes for it.
"It is enough in some ways to be well known in Brazil," she said. "But it would be nice to be known internationally too. That may take some getting used to, of course. I was on the jury of the recent Tokyo Film Festival and sitting there with producers like David Puttnam, I kept looking around and thinking, "What am I doing here, a little girl from the South of Brazil?' Really, you know, it was a bit overwhelming."