Tieta of Agreste (1996): Brazilian Carlos Diegues Romantic Comedy, Starring Sonia Braga and Marilia Pera

(Tieta do Agreste)
(Brazil/UK)

Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 9, 1996–Two of Brazilian cinema’s grand dames, the gorgeously sexy Sonia Braga and the brilliantly accomplished Marilia Pera, are at the center of Tieta of Agreste, a new romantic comedy directed by veteran filmmaker Carlos Diegues, best-known in the West for Bye Bye Brazil.

In what might be described as a cross between Auntie Mame and Durrenmatt’s noted play, The Visit, this adventurous tale offers a light satirical look at a small Brazilian town torn between forces of tradition and modernity. Always buoyant, and often erotic, pic has a good shot at making it in major markets internationally, provided that it goes back to the editing room and lose a healthy portion of its excessive running time.

In its current form, Tieta of Agreste, based on Jorge Amado’s famous novel, is a messily shapeless, overly long, but extremely enjoyable film about the cultural contradictions that mark Brazil as a society at a crossroads, specifically the tensions between ruralism and urbanism, tradition and industrialization, above all, religious hypocrisy and pragmatic politics.

The film heralds the return of Braga, one of Brazil’s few international stars, to her own country, after a frustrating decade in Hollywood with such films as Moon Over Parador and The Rookies. Braga is perfectly cast in the title role, a wealthy Sao Paulo widow, returning to her provincial village 26 years after she was denounced by her father for her “immoral” conduct. First sequence hilariously intercuts the town’s elaborate preparations for Tieta’s arrival with flashbacks (in black and white) of her amorous exploits as a voluptuous adolescent.

There’s a veil of mystery and intriguing gossip about Tieta, who’s accompanied by Leonora (Claudia Abreu), a young woman she introduces as her daughter-in-law. Perpetua (Pera), her older, unattractive sister, who’s also a widow, speculates with her father (Chico Anysio) about Tieta’s past, for the only contact the family has had with her is through letters sent from a P.O. Box in Sao Paulo. In addition to the correspondence, controlled by Carmo (Zeze Motta), a nosy post-office employee and the town’s happiest spinster, Tieta has also sent money to help her father, sisters and nephews.

As expected, Tieta’s return, in a seductive red convertible, causes an upheaval that upsets–and changes the life–of every resident. Tieta’s first “victim” is her handsome nephew, Cardo (Heitor Martinez Mello), a would-be-priest, who, under her sensual encouragement, loses his viraginity. Tieta also sees to it that Ascanio (Leon Goes), the young, progressive politician who asks for her help in bringing electricity to town, would be more aggressive in his so-far platonic affair with Leonora.

Sant’Ana do Agreste is a dormant town, literally lost on the map–and in time–but Tieta brings such chaos to the peaceful and hypocritically religious denizens that soon she is courted by the town’s mad mayor, the “official” poet, the commander obsessed with ecological issues–and by her own repentant father who desperately needs her money in order to repurchase the land and sheep he had lost.

Though the background is vibrantly colorful, the true emotional drama resides in the complex relationship between Tieta and her stingy sister Perpetua. In the film’s climax, when Tieta is jilted by Richard for a young virgin, she loses her temper and chases him all over the town. This leads to a head-on confrontation with Perpetua, in which all past secrets and misunderstandings are resolved, including revelations about Tieta’s “obscure” business, which turns out to be a prosperous bordello.

Compressed from a pretty substantial novel, script consists of too many adventures and probably too many characters for its own good, resulting in kaleidoscopic narrative that’s a lopsided mix of strong as well as tedious scenes.

Nonetheless, if the quality of writing and direction is uneven, the acting of the two leads is impeccable. Unlike Durrenmatt’s heroine (whom Ingrid Bergman played in a screen version), who returns to her town for revenge, the good-natured Tieta is not vengeful, though she clearly gets a kick out of being courted by all those who had previously despised her. Wired with boundless energy and charisma, Braga exudes an earthy sensuality that charges the whole film with exuberant eroticism. Aware of Braga’s natural sex appeal, helmer parades her in dozens tight, bright-colored outfits (designed by Ocimar Versolato).

It’s a great pleasure to observe the magnetic Pera, Brazil’s most noted actress (still most vividly remembered for her heartbreaking turn in Pixote), convey the volatile roughness and tender vulnerability of the jealous sister with such expertness and conviction–it’s a well-crafted, but much less sympathetic role than Braga’s.

Still, more than just simple streamlining is necessary in order to make the story more functionally driven and emotionally engaging. Pic’s dense plot needs to be reassembled in a different way to regain a semblance of coherence, in lieu of its current disjointed shape.