The More the Merrier

From Brazil, a lovely bossa nova fantasy -- with roots in feminist reality

The heroine of Andrucha Waddington's Me You Themis a force of nature who holds men in her thrall and deftly reshapes them to suit life. Without knowing it they fall prey to her charms, her spirit, her very scent. But she's no Cleopatra dripping with jewels, no Lucrezia Borgia draped in the dark power of the state, no simmering femme fatale with a taste for grand larceny. The most wonderful and startling thing about Darlene (Regina Casé) is that she's a beleaguered Brazilian peasant, strong of back and built low to the ground. She has unruly black tresses, the calves of a weight lifter, and the sturdy, chiseled visage of -- what? -- a survivor. She's no woman for the cover of a fashion magazine, but she'd look just right on the face of a coin.

Darlene's strength, like that of any earth mother, resides in mystery. When we first see her, she's perched on the back of a donkey in a dusty rural hamlet, wearing a smudged bridal dress and obviously pregnant. It's the kind of oddly tilted Madonna image that Fellini and Buñuel (and Madonna Ciccone) would likely appreciate -- especially since Darlene is shortly to be left at the church and, instead of falling apart, will promptly hoist up her gown and hitch a ride on a farm truck, riding into an uncertain future. Director Waddington, a 30-year-old veteran of music videos, TV commercials, and one obscure feature film (1999's Gêmeas), has the great good sense to set these plain events against some of the most gorgeous music on the planet -- written by the Brazilian master Gilberto Gil. The contrast between Darlene's country pragmatism and Gil's romantic impulse is dynamic, to say the least. If you're shopping for soundtracks, this one's a must.

Ten minutes into Me You Them, we're intrigued by Darlene, but that's nothing compared to the spells this magician works on the men who come into her life, starting three years later. The first of them is an aging minor landowner named Osias (venerable Brazilian actor Lima Duarte) who sees in Darlene a reliable source of labor, proposes to her, then complains at their humble wedding that the music is keeping his goats awake. There's no honeymoon. A tyrant and an autocrat, Osias lolls all day in his hammock with the boom box playing, while his new wife trudges off to the cane fields.

But even in slavery Darlene's intuition is perfect, and her gift for adaptation is uncanny. After fascinating her foolish ogre of a husband and bearing him a son, she seduces Osias' sweet-tempered cousin, Zezinho (Stênio Garcia), who has a penchant for cooking, and incorporates him, too, into her little universe. She also has a child with him. There's no guile or connivance in this, just Darlene's instinct -- the same unerring instinct that compels her to make terrible but necessary sacrifices. Ever vigilant, she soon has what amounts to a pair of coequal husbands and, despite the fevers of their machismo, the two men find themselves helpless to protest. Captured and baffled, they accept their new domestic arrangements as a kind of useful symbiosis. It isn't much longer until, while working in the fields, Darlene recruits a third husband and father, this one a lean young stud named Ciro (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos). He not only loves her as deeply as the others (and accepts his lot) but is good for heavy lifting, household chores, and occasional roof repair.

Written by a young woman named Elena Soárez, this wry and extremely witty tale of practical polyandry could stand happily on its own as a kind of rustic feminist fantasy, set to the infectious rhythms of bossa nova. But the entire thing is based on a 1995 Brazilian TV special about an actual woman who lived in the company of three men for more than ten years -- apparently blessed by the same sort of improvisational harmony Waddington and Soárez depict here. In South America, too, assorted social and political factions argue about true love and family values, and it's both instructive and delightful to see the whole nagging, overcooked issue given such an inventive twist -- and a much needed kick in the ass. Sundry queens of antiquity assembled their male harems, too, but it's unlikely that many of them had as much dirt under their fingernails -- or as much native moxie -- as Darlene. And if one of them occasionally made love with three men in the same night, she certainly has nothing on our present heroine.

This lovely movie, simply and beautifully shot in Brazil's northeastern countryside by cinematographer Breno Silveira, is satisfying from start to finish. But it probably wouldn't have worked at all without a glowing, energetic, beautifully detailed performance by Casé, who for two decades has been one of Brazil's most formidable stage, film, and TV actresses and is widely regarded there as a national treasure. This perfectly cut gem will do nothing to diminish her legend.

 
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