No wonder Brazil's greatest writer, Jorge Amado, entrusted Sonia Braga with the screen rights to his novel "Tieta of Agreste."
No wonder Braga, who gained international renown for starring in the film version of Amado's "Don~a Flor and Her Two Husbands," returned to Brazil after 12 years in the U.S. to star in the title role under the direction of Carlos Diegues, one of the founding fathers of his country's Cinema Nova back in the '60s.
The result is a triumph for all concerned.
A bittersweet comedy, "Tieta" could have been created with Braga in mind. She plays a beautiful, highly desirable woman who returns to her home village in Bahia, Sant'Ana do Agreste, 26 years after having been driven out at the age of 17. She had been denounced by her older sister, Perpetua, who caught her making love with a local youth.
Tieta returns in grand style as a rich widow with her pretty stepdaughter Leonora (Claudia Abreu) in tow. The prospect of largess to her family and community swiftly obliterates the scandal surrounding her departure.
The lush-looking Tieta has an abundance of earthy humor and, refreshingly, is not looking for revenge but rather love, something she does not easily admit to herself. Yet so eager is everyone to benefit from her that no one seems very concerned with what she experienced during her long absence.
Tieta's wry wit and easy generosity mask considerable disillusion and a pride more fierce than she realizes. She agrees to buy back for her father (Chico Anysio), who cast her out, the land that he has lost in the interim; decides that she's got to divert her handsome young nephew (Heitor Martinez Mello) from the priesthood; and calls a senator of her acquaintance, who promptly agrees to supply the town with electricity.
None of these acts, however, are without unexpected consequences. For example, the prospect of electrification paves the way for an industrialization that may not be all that desirable.
In any event, Diegues explores fully the contradictions in Brazilian culture--the conflict between sincerity and hypocrisy, past and present, sentimentality and corruption--that emerge in the telling of Tieta's story. The film is specifically much concerned with the cult of virginity in women and therefore the double standard, and also the pollution and exploitation of natural resources. Beyond that, it is very much a saga of the struggle for survival, both of the individual and of a poor citizenry, and of the inevitability of change.
Braga's sensual beauty and fiery passion are perfect for the bold but emotionally scarred Tieta, and Braga is well-matched by another major actress, Marilia Pera, unforgettable as the ravaged prostitute in Hector Babenco's "Pixote." As older sister Perpetua, the one who betrayed Tieta, Pera is a figure of enduring piety mixed with a desperate greed.
But you can be sure that an actress of Pera's stature will be certain to have an opportunity to reveal dimensions that allow her character to emerge as a fully understandable woman. Gratifyingly, Tieta and Perpetua build to a terrific moment of truth.
There is still another vibrant veteran actress in the film: Zeze Motta, star of Diegues' ravishing "Xica," a 1976 satire on the excesses of Brazil's colonial era. Motta, who now resembles Pearl Bailey more than Josephine Baker, is a wise, delightful presence as the town's nosy postmistress.
With a score by Caetano Veloso that's as seductive as Braga, and with camera work by Edgar Moura that captures the enduring beauty of Braga as well as that of the film's seaside setting, "Tieta of Agreste" is a beguiling work with an easy, graceful flow to it. It is set in motion by warm and wise observations by silver-haired Amado himself.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes strong sexuality, blunt language.
'Tieta of Agreste'
Sonia Braga: Tieta
Marilia Pera: Perpetua
Claudia Abreu: Leonora
Zeze Motta: Carmo
A Skylight/Serene presentation. Director Carlos Diegues. Producers Bruno Stoppiana, Donald Ranvaud. Executive producers Miguel Faria Jr., Telmo Maia. Screenplay by Joa~o Ubaido Ribeiro, Antonio Calmon, Diegues. Cinematographer Edgar Moura. Costumes Luciana Buarque. Sonia Braga's costumes by Ocimar Versolato. Music Caetano Veloso. Art director Lia Renha. In Portuguese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.