Brazilian moviemaker Bruno Barreto clearly has a taste for changing gears. In fact-based political thrillers like A Show of Force and Four Days in September, he casts himself as a second-string Costa-Gavras, rooting out state-sanctioned evil and the indiscretions of starry-eyed South American radicals. In his recent Hollywood period, Barreto proved to be less conversant with U.S. culture. Witness 1996's Carried Away, a well-meant but preachy drama in which shy high school teacher Dennis Hopper falls prey to a scheming Lolita. Luckily, the Bruno Barreto most filmgoers know best is the vivid magical realist who directed 1976's Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, a luminous fantasy in which a beautiful widow, whose new mate is a dullard, suddenly finds the old fires stoked by the butt-naked ghost of her wayward first husband.Happy to report, it's the playful, life-loving spirit of Doña Flor that rules Barreto's new movie, Bossa Nova, rather than the reformer's urge to rake muck or the displaced person's temptation to Americanize his work. Shot in beautiful Rio de Janeiro and set afloat on a cloud of refashioned Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, this is a romantic comedy for grownups, spiced with sophisticated wit and dedicated to the proposition that men and women are exalted by love -- and their search for it. Admirers of master screwballers like Capra and Hawks will appreciate the sureness and swiftness of Barreto's comic attack and the eccentricity of his characters, while Riophiles will be enthralled by his fervent embrace of the city where he grew up. This is, among other things, a very nice collision of style and setting.
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The heroine here is an expatriate named Mary Ann Simpson (played by Amy Irving, who also happens to be Mrs. Barreto). Like Dona Flor, Mary Ann is a widow, but not an especially merry one. Her husband, a Brazilian airline pilot, drowned two years ago, and now she contents herself with a few female friendships and with teaching English to carioca businesspeople and travelers. This makes for fetching comedy in itself: With generosity and great empathy, Barreto pokes fun at linguistic false moves, untranslatable concepts and cultural gaps. In the American term "girlfriend," for instance, a wealth of misunderstanding lurks. The director's own trials in learning English and grasping American peculiarities are richly reflected here, as is their opposite number -- the American penchant for stereotyping things and people Brazilian.
As it happens, Mary Ann Simpson (who arises from the novel Miss Simpson, by Sergio Sant'Anna, with a little help from Sao Paolo screenwriters Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young) becomes the hub of the dazzling interplay of romantic misadventures that drive Bossa Nova gloriously forward. Just as it wouldn't do to unravel all the skeins woven into Grand Hotel (or even an episode of NYPD Blue), there's no point in deconstructing too much here. Suffice it to say that Mary Ann is the locus for the intertwined tribulations of a cuckolded, silver-haired lawyer named Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes), whose wife Tania (Debora Bloch) has run off with her Tai Chi instructor; the lawyer's bright new intern (Giovanna Antonelli); a self-centered soccer star called Acacio (Alexandre Borges), who's headed to England for millions in salary; Mary Ann's dreamily bewildered friend Nadine (Drica Morales), who thinks she's found true love, via the Internet no less, with an unseen New York artist (Stephen Tobolowsky); and an oft-married gentleman tailor (Alberto de Mendoza), whose intimacy with his trade runs so deep that a bolt of fabric can "tell him" what sort of garment it should become.
There's a sweetness in these people's collective bafflement that plays beautifully against the film's frantic pace. No matter what happens to such strivers -- some will connect with each other, others will lose out -- we wish them well, not least because their quest for happiness is undertaken against such an exquisite backdrop. Not unreasonably, Barreto believes "you have to be in love to fully appreciate Rio's beauty." With that in mind, he and cinematographer Pascal Rabaud give us sumptuous (if slightly offbeat) views of landmarks like Ipanema Beach and the Copacabana Palace Hotel while juggling half a dozen human dramas. There are so many delicious little comic moments in Bossa Nova that each viewer is bound to harbor his or her favorites: Mine include Mary Ann's solemn lesson to the soccer millionaire about how to trash-talk his opponents in English, a middle-aged woman's alarming discovery that her new Chinese lover slurps his soup and the life-affirming first meeting between what turns out to be an uptight corporate attorney from New York and a sweet-tempered Rio girl who have completely misrepresented themselves to each other.
As for Irving, it's clearer than ever how much her director/husband thinks of her: Bossa Nova may be officially dedicated to the late French director Francois Truffaut and (inevitably) to the magisterial composer Jobim, but it's also very much, and very obviously, a valentine to the leading lady. Irving, who has appeared in half a dozen previous Barreto films, has never looked lovelier or been blessed with wittier dialogue than here, and it doesn't hurt a bit that the transformation of Mary Ann's loneliness into fulfillment is underscored by luscious new versions of Jobim anthems like "The Girl From Ipanema," "Useless Landscape" and "Insensitive" (sung by Sting). If you can't visit Rio this year, seeing Bossa Nova may be the next best thing. Certainly, it represents a talented filmmaker in his most comfortable surroundings, expressing emotions that all of us yearn to feel, uplifted by a wild kick of comedy.