The More the Merrier

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

The heroine of Andrucha Waddington's Me You Them is 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 but a beleaguered Brazilian peasant, strong of back and built low to the ground. She has unruly black tresses, the calves of a weightlifter 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 any earth mother's, resides in mystery. When first we 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 because 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 into an uncertain future. Director Waddington, a 30-year-old veteran of music videos, TV commercials, and one obscure feature film (Twins), 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 with 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 (Stenio 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 arrangement as a kind of useful symbiosis. It isn't much longer until, 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 Soarez, this wry and extremely witty tale of practical polygamy (more specifically, polyandry) could stand happily on its own as a kind of rustic feminist fantasy, set to the infectious rhythms of bossa nova, except that 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 10 years -- apparently blessed by the same sort of improvisational harmony Waddington and Soarez portray 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, they've certainly got nothing on our 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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