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'Woman on Top'

That's Brazil for you: 'Woman on Top' a lively mix of sexy romance and magic

Friday, September 22, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Here's a wild, weird, sexy one from those wild, oversexed Brazilians. They call it a comedy; it's really more of a romance. But it actually belongs to an exotic genre that I've just invented: voodoo musical.

'Woman On Top'

RATING: R for sexual themes

STARRING: Penelope Cruz, Murilo Benicio, Harold Perrineau Jr.

DIRECTOR: Fina Torres

WEB SITE: www.womanon

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars


"Woman on Top" is the name, and right away you've got to like it for that blatantly suggestive title alone. Our woman is Isabella (Penelope Cruz), who suffers from chronic motion sickness -- in and out of bed. In the former case, it only goes away when she is above rather than below husband Toninho (Murilo Benicio), which is decidedly not how macho Brazilian guys prefer it.

Whew. That wasn't easy for family-newspaper consumption.

Moving right along, Isabella is not only gorgeous but also a brilliant chef whose concoctions using "magic" Bahian spices have made Toninho's restaurant a fabulous success. He gets all the glory while she slaves away in the kitchen, of course, but that's the lot of the Brazilian woman, she loves him, and they have great s-e-x. Sexy Bahia -- Portuguese for "bay," encompassing picturesque Salvador and other port towns on Brazil's northeastern coast -- is a paradise of a place to live in, and all is well until Isabella catches him in flagrante delicto above, not below, another woman.

Bye-bye Toninho and Brazil. Hello San Francisco, whither she repairs to stake out a new life under the wing of her best friend Monica -- a huge transvestite (Harold Perrineau Jr.). Soon enough, after a few soulful ballads (by Brazil's great guitarist Heitor Pereira) hundreds of men are following her seductive strolls through the streets (taxis and cable cars make her throw up), and she gets "discovered" and signed up for a sexy TV cooking show.

Sexy cooking is very "in" with the decadent viewers of San Francisco -- a phenomenon we non-decadent Pittsburgh viewers don't understand. Well, you might. I don't. I never got beyond the late, great Kay Newman's 1956 school of TV cooking -- "Put two cans of Number 202 cherries in the shell, then bake 50 minutes" -- and the certainty that she'd eat the whole thing herself off-camera when it came out, God love her.

But I digress. Worse than usual.

Isabella's show -- "Passion Food Live" -- is a huge hit. Remorseful Toninho makes the mistake of cursing Yemanja, the fisherman's beloved sea goddess, as he sets out for San Francisco (with a guitar sextet on 24-hour duty) to win back Isabella. Yemanja makes his life miserable there with a curse of her own.

Actually, the Bahian religion is not voodoo (which is Haitian) but candomble, a variation combining different African, Indian and Catholic elements. I was there in 1984, sneaked into an all-night ceremony and sneaked out fast after the third chicken lost its head.

Never mind. No bloodshed in "Woman on Top," just several beautifully filmed sea-goddess sacrifices with surreal underwater candlelight and a nice schmaltzy score by Luis Bacalov, who won an Oscar for his "Il Postino" music. Despite -- or because of -- all the schlocky romanticism, director Fina Torres makes us yearn for Brazil. And guess what? She's a Venezuelan.

Penelope Cruz in the title role is a perfect delight. And guess what? She's Spanish -- fine star of Almodovar's "All About My Mother." With her hair up in certain scenes, you'd swear she's the reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn.

Benicio is a hot and hunky hubby, but he and his songs get on your nerves after a while. Perrineau vamps and camps it up in a colorful, endearingly absurd way -- totally indistinguishable from his brilliant performance in "Smoke" ('95) and his elegant turn in the DiCaprio "Romeo & Juliet" ('96).

Will Isabella forgive Toninho? Will they get back together? Will Yemanja be appeased and remove her curse? Will Toninho learn his lesson? Will the charming outweigh the cloying? Will you pay me to stop asking self-evident voodoo musical questions?

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