Jorge Amado is one of the most revered authors from Brazil, and after phenomenal success in bringing to film his earlier novel "Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos", director Bruno Barreto adapted yet another popular novel of his, "Gabriela, Cravo e Canela" [Eng. Title: Gabriela], to reasonable acclaim.
Set in 1925, in the cocoa producing town of Ilhéus where the author himself grew up, it wryly observes the social changes happening at the time when the backwater town was finally opened up to direct trade and opportunities following an improvement in infrastructure. It was also a time when refugees from the drought-hit north came pouring into town - one of whom, covered in dirt through the long trek, was a young woman named Gabriela (Sonia Braga).
She gets picked up by a bar owner named Nasib (Marcello Mastroianni), a Syrian-Italian immigrant himself, to work as his personal cook at home. Not only does the unassuming Gabriela turn out to be an outstanding cook, but also a vivacious, sensual, and free-spirited woman, whose likes the conservative town had never seen. Impressed by his demeanour and mature looks, she offers herself willingly to Nasib, who could hardly believe his luck when they become lovers. But soon, the town's men begin to take interest in her too, offering her various incentives to move in with them. A loyal Gabriela politely refuses those offers.
A jealous Nasib, aware of the attention Gabriela gets everywhere, wants her as his own, and proposes marriage after getting his best friend and Mayor's son Tonico Bastos (Antonio Cantafora) to prepare/forge her identity papers. Gabriela was quite content remaining Nasib's cook and lover, but she nevertheless acquiesces to his wishes, and after their marriage, the dynamic of their relationship changes.
While Nasib tries to impart some 'refined culture' into his new wife Gabriela and force her to change her attire and manners, little did he anticipate that it would backfire spectacularly. A telling moment in the film is when Gabriela asks Nasib how it could possibly be more fun listening to a poet one barely understands, when compared to watching a circus performance. She finds the hypocrisy of the upper classes amusing, and sneaks off to the circus after Nasib falls sleep.
The film may have decided to shower greater attention to the sensual and sexual aspect of Gabriela's relationship with Nasib, but it's not difficult to see that Gabriela the character also stands as an allegory for 'the New World' itself. Her raw, untamed, and pure nature is clearly at odds with the 'old' world that's dictating terms, but she resists and sets her own terms while dealing with them. There is a social and political undercurrent to events happening in Ilhéus, and while that may not be the film's focus, it is nevertheless discernible. The film, like the novel, starts with an almost casual act of brutality and the people stand in solidarity with the perpetrator. He will however, face justice towards the end - a sign that change is in the air.
This isn't the veteran director's finest film, but I chose to review it mainly for its casting. Marcelo Mastroianni was already a superstar back in Italy when the film was made (though past his prime), but he nevertheless chose to take on this atypical role of a not-too-perfect Nasib to good effect. I'm aware that "Gabriela" has been made and remade several times, but it will be difficult to compare anyone to a Sonia Braga - she is Gabriela in every sense in the film - sensual, and as convincing as she was Dona Flor in Barreto's earlier film. Mastroianni and Ms Braga bring an explosive chemistry to their characters, and it works. It's also a memorable film that accurately recreates an earlier period in Brazil - and therefore Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com DVD Link [NTSC]
The Nudity: Sonia Braga, Tania Boscoli, and Antonio Cantáfora
Among mainstream films with liberal nudity, "Gabriela" is certainly a classic, because Sonia Braga who plays the titular character is at her most uninhibited. She's also often without knickers in her scenes, but it's not gratuitous - only part of a 'natural' characterisation, even if some of the characters she interacts with come out as leery and lewd. In addition to Ms. Braga's scenes, there is nudity in a post-sex scene featuring Tania Boscoli as Gloria, offering spending money to her young lover. Antonio Cantáfora's character is also caught while having sex with Gabriela, and runs through the street without any clothes on.