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Quarantine Double Feature: The Mysteries Of Marriage

A still from Luchino Visconti's 1976 film "L’Innocente." (Courtesy Film Movement)
A still from Luchino Visconti's 1976 film "L’Innocente." (Courtesy Film Movement)

Quarantine Double Feature is a series in which we pick two films available for streaming and discussion while we wait out this crisis at home. This week: The Mysteries of Marriage.

I’m not sure who gave it the nickname “Boston’s unofficial film school” but I suppose you could say I was enrolled at the Brattle Theatre long before I ever went to college. For someone who grew up in the suburbs around the time Blockbuster was bulldozing all the funky mom-and-pop video stores out of business, the Brattle was a lifeline to classics of international cinema that you’d never see stocked on those wretched blue and yellow shelves. I lived in a desert of new release drivel, but only a subway ride away were screenings of secret classics I’d read legends of in my dog-eared Roger Ebert movie guides, and for an indoor kid who didn’t play well with others there was no feeling more thrilling than descending those Harvard Square steps for an afternoon double feature. It was there I first saw the works of masters with names like Fellini, Kurosawa and Welles. Sometimes I’d even walk in cold to whatever they were showing, figuring if a movie was at the Brattle it must be worth watching.

The balcony may be closed for the time being, but the good folks at the Brattle are doing their best to keep us connected through their virtual programming. On their website, creative director Ned Hinkle and his staff have been putting together themed repertory series featuring daily streaming recommendations, along with weekend sidebars for kids’ films and a collection of curios called #BreakYourAlgorithm. The gang all talks us through their movie selections on a delightful podcast, and just last week the theater got into the virtual screening room business — in which arthouse distributors and cinemas split the prices of a streaming rental fee as if it were a movie ticket — so I was able to call up a couple of new-to-me titles and have the closest thing possible to one of my beloved Brattle double features.

Sônia Braga in Bruno Barreto's 1976 film "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." (Courtesy Film Movement)
Sônia Braga in Bruno Barreto's 1976 film "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." (Courtesy Film Movement)

Director Bruno Barreto’s saucy Brazilian sex comedy “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” became an international blockbuster back in 1976, outgrossing “Jaws” in its home country and holding the box office title there for two decades until “Titanic” came along. Released the same year, “L’Innocente” was the final film from the legendary Luchino Visconti, who passed away during post-production. The first is an endearingly clumsy, hungry debut from a director who was only 19 when the picture was shot, the latter a mournful reflection from an artist who knows he’s near the end. But both movies are preoccupied with the mysteries of marriage and infidelity, exploring the unpredictable desires of men and women. They’re films from a pre-franchise era when such subjects were deemed worthy of serious, big-screen consideration. They’re also from a time when if people went to a subtitled movie, they expected to see a little skin.

The great Sônia Braga — still kicking butt in this year’s “Bacurau” — rocketed to international sex symbol status after playing the title role in “Dona Flor.” She stars as the put-upon housewife of miserable lothario Vadinho (José Wilker), an irresponsible lout who gambles, slaps her around and disappears for days on end. Their marriage may be miserable but the sex is out of this world, with Braga rhapsodizing in breathy voice-over about everything up to and including his hot onion breath. After Vadinho drops dead during a street carnival, the widow takes up with a kindly pharmacist (Mauro Mendonça) who’s a wonderful husband and a dud in the sack. That’s when Vadinho’s ghost starts hanging around the house naked, mocking their missionary position trysts.

Though rudimentary in technique, sometimes to the point of amateurishness, you can still see why the film took off the way it did, titillating arthouse audiences with its exotic earthiness and naughty humor. Barreto centers the sensual pleasures, focusing on food and flesh at every opportunity. It’s also offhandedly revolutionary — especially for its time — in presenting a heroine who can indeed have it all, keeping her doting, docile husband for the daytime and the animal around to pleasure her at night. The film’s final, cheerfully blasphemous shot sends you out with a dirty smile. (Of course Hollywood tried cleaning it up with a remake. 1982’s PG-rated “Kiss Me Goodbye” starred Sally Field, James Caan and Jeff Bridges, leaving out all the sex stuff and thus missing the point entirely.)

A still from Luchino Visconti's 1976 film "L’Innocente." (Courtesy Film Movement)
A still from Luchino Visconti's 1976 film "L’Innocente." (Courtesy Film Movement)

Debauched 19th-century aristocrat Tullio (played by Giancarlo Giannini) has barely looked at his wife in months. The occasionally loathsome protagonist of “L’Innocente” has been carrying on with a widowed countess (Jennifer O’Neill) in one of those insultingly open affairs that spouses are expected to shut up and learn how to live with. Unbeknownst to Tullio, the coping mechanisms of his wife Giuliana (Italian softcore star Laura Antonelli) include the company of a hunky writer who resembles a younger, better-looking version of her wayward husband. But once our man finds out he’s not the only one cheating, he suddenly finds himself falling in love with Giuliana again.

For a good stretch, “L’Innocente” is a droll comedy of manners, teasing the possessiveness of its hot-headed antihero, and mocking the territoriality of machismo. Giannini, having already embodied pretty much every angle of thwarted masculinity in his many collaborations with director Lina Wertmuller, is a natural fit for the role. His sweatiness and discomfort in the fancy period garb suit the character’s increasing unease in his own skin, desperately trying to win back the woman he’s already thrown away.

I wasn’t as taken with the film’s less sardonic second hour, which becomes more of a languid melodrama. But Antonelli, previously famous for lewd comedies with titles like “X-Rated Girl” and “The Divine Nymph,” is a real heartbreaker here, elevating the movie above its occasionally overwritten passages. As in a lot of Visconti movies, the opulent period surroundings are both ravishing and asphyxiating, with these impeccably decorated drawing rooms coming to feel like mausoleums the characters have built around themselves. So consummately detailed is the production design I found myself wishing I could be watching it on a big screen, dreaming once again of the day we can go back to the Brattle.


Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” and “L'Innocente” are available through the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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