Bruno Barreto, the Brazilian director of "Happily Ever After" (Fine Arts) is a film maker with a high talent for the erotic. His films seem slippery and golden. They're steeped in a tropical sunlit haze, full of flesh and perspiration, simmering glances and torrid laughter. Barreto gets a mood that's both impudent and arousing, and perhaps the impudence, his gently mocking tone, is responsible for much of the erotic charge.

In "Happily Ever After," Barreto and writer Antonio Calmon tell a familiar story about passion between bourgeois and outlaw--but they spring it free of its moral moorings and edge it toward carnal comedy. Barreto keeps his eyes open, even when his heroine has them blissfully shut, and he also refuses to judge or nudge his characters in formula ways. "Happily Ever After," dedicated to Francois Truffaut, is a logical film about passion, and though it's not as logical--or as brilliant--as ones by Truffaut's friend Eric Rohmer, it's somewhat looser and more limber. It has some of Truffaut's poignantly constrained joy.

The movie shows a settled, seraphically content housewife named Fernanda (Regina Duarte) conceiving a mad passion for a young male prostitute, Miguel (Paulo Castelli). Miguel is clearly no good, an impish wastrel with jaguar T-shirts and pastel pants, who's "slept with half of Sao Paolo"; his nickname is Archangel. Fernanda is a radiant, casually competent decorator and mother, whose heart seems as sumptuous as her body; she's tawny and warm, usually clothed in dazzling, angelic whites.

They're an unlikely couple, except for their twin candid stares and soft, childlike smiles. What seems to pull them together, initially, is a linkage of Fernanda's maternal instincts and Miguel's opportunism. She sees him as fulfillment of her dark, perverse dreams; he sees her as a sexy meal ticket. Barreto constructs the story like a thriller, portraying Fernanda's flight into irresponsibility: the inexorable way she gets drawn into Miguel's seedy little twilight world, with his drug-dealing buddies and flamboyant drag-queen mentor, Bombom (Patricio Bisso.)

The two lovers take a drive to the sea, with a cargo of cocaine and with Fernanda's family conveniently on vacation; it becomes a gradual plunge into self-realization. Yet Barreto keeps strictly away from condemnation, and by the end, it almost seems that the film's viewpoint belongs to neither Fernanda nor Miguel, but to someone we mostly don't see: Fernanda's husband. The story is an act of imaginative forgiveness.

Though not generally recognized, Barreto was almost as much a movie prodigy as Welles or Spielberg. His huge international hit, "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," was made when he was only 21, and by that time, he'd already directed two other features and six shorts--the first when he was 11. Perhaps what has seemed slack or unformed in his films was due to his youth. He's 31 now, and he's adopted a more chaste, logical style. His camera is at the service of story and actors, and, though Bisso's Bombom is not quite the "Cage Aux Folles" star turn that was obviously intended, the lead actors are remarkable.

As Miguel, Paulo Castelli looks perfect: soft, cagey, cat-footed, loose as ashes, with insinuating eyes and hips and a calculated boyish grin. (The brown blotch on his face adds just the right flawed touch.) At first, you expect him to go further, make Miguel evil--but it may be right to keep him weak instead; a con man drifting on currents--expert at sex, a failure at life.

As Fernanda, the lovely Regina Duarte has feline suppleness, too, and one of those great, transparent movie faces on which every flicker of mood registers. At one point, worth studying, she shows five successive, distinct emotions in 10 seconds using no dialogue at all: nothing but her eyes, lips and the way she holds a steering wheel.

Barreto gets his best moments in the erotic collision of these opposites: guilt and fear overcome by frenzy, then succumbing to more guilt and fear. Like many experts at movie sexuality, he works best against his own moral grain, his own sense of sin and limits. And if "Happily Ever After" (Times-rated: Mature for copious sex and nudity) seems lightweight at times--as in its mock-cliche, twisted-in title--it's, overall, a clear-eyed look at a theme that's too often raw, tawdry or exaggerated.


A European Classics release. Producers Lucy Barreto, Antonio Calmon. Director Bruno Barreto. Script Calmon. Camera Affonso Beato. Editor Vera Friere. With Regina Duarte, Paulo Castelli, Patricio Bisso, Flavio Galvao.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (sex, nudity, language.)

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