The Flickers: Bossa Nova

Bossa Nova (2000)

Starring Amy Irving, Antônio Fagundes, Alexandre Borges, Giovanna Antonelli, Débora Bloch, Drica Moraes and Stephen Tobolowsky. Directed by Bruno Barreto. From Columbia Pictures Television/Sony Corporation of America.

All images © Sony Pictures Classics except where noted

Mary Ann Simpson (Irving) is an American English teacher living in Rio de Janeiro. Every morning, she goes swimming in Guanabara Bay trying to forget her dead husband. One morning after her swim while she stands on the beach, a man walks by. Attorney Pedro Paulo (Fagundes) is also on the beach this morning, walking despondently. For the last four months, he has been separated from his wife, Tânia (Bloch).

Morning in Rio. Ships have passed one another and remain solitary figures

While Mary Ann tutors her private student, Nadine (Moraes), the two talk of internet romance and Nadine tells Mary Ann about her cyber boyfriend, Gary, a 6-foot, 2-inch tall artist with long hair who lives in a loft in Soho. Mary Ann says she would prefer to meet a real man in a real place and tells Nadine about her late husband. As Nadine leaves, Mary Ann’s next student arrives. Acácio (Borges) is a popular Brazilian footballer who needs to learn English as he has made a transfer to a club in Manchester, England.

Pedro Paulo arrives at work at Vermont and Associates. He learns he has a new intern, pretty Sharon (Antonelli). He sends Sharon to his father’s tailor shop with papers as Pedro Paulo is representing Juan (Alberto de Mendoza) in his fourth divorce case. While there, Sharon talks Acácio and football with the tailors including Pedro Paulo’s half-brother, Roberto (Pedro Cardoso), who defends her point of view, obviously smitten. Later Pedro Paulo visits his dad at the tailor shop and discusses the divorce case. Leaving his father’s shop, Pedro Paulo sees Mary Ann leaving her class on another floor of the building. Intrigued by her beauty, he decides to join her class and learn English – again.

This gorgeous building on Rua Duvivier houses both Juan’s tailor shop and Mary Ann’s classroom

Nadine is preparing to go to the States to visit and finally meet Gary. Her travel agent is none other than Pedro Paulo’s wife, Tânia, who becomes intrigued by Nadine’s story and vows to help her get her visa. After Pedro Paulo’s first time in Mary Ann’s class, he stands behind her in the elevator and surreptitiously measures her, intending to make her a blouse. He goes to his dad’s shop and picks up the scissors for the first time in 20 years. His father watches, impressed. Because Acácio had made a move on her that she rebuffed, Mary Ann assumes the blouse is from him.

Pedro Paulo watches his father, Juan, at work. Juan has always said that the fabric will tell you what it wants to be.
The many times this family listens to the fabric in this film adds a charming touch to the story

Pedro Paulo takes Mary Ann out for a drink and the two connect; particularly after Pedro Paulo says the blouse is from him and he made it himself. Mary Ann has overdone it, though, with the caipirinhas and Pedro Paulo has to put her to bed. He is still there in the morning while Mary Ann sleeps and Acácio shows up for his tutoring session. After the footballer makes up a story about he and Mary Ann being intimate, the two men spar during a teaching session. Acácio and Pedro Paulo leave together and Pedro Paulo cannot ask Mary Ann for clarification.

The judge’s ruling in the divorce case comes down and the news is not good, leading to tragedy for Juan. Acácio and Sharon fall for each other while discussing Acácio’s contract in Pedro Paulo’s office and Sharon – much to Roberto’s sorrow – accompanies the Brazilian star to the airport to join his new club. Tânia is ready to get back together with her husband but Pedro Paulo is not so sure. Just when Gary shows up in town on business, Mary Ann ends up in the hospital. Mistaken identity and misunderstandings abound when all these disparate players coalesce.

Love in Rio can be like a lightning strike to the heart. An image well captured by the second unit. And by me, I might add.

Originalmente, eu havia brincado com a ideia de traduzir todo este artigo para o português e fazer com que todos o convertessem novamente para o inglês. Principalmente porque há muito tempo queria aprender este ou outros idiomas, mas nunca tive tempo. Mas isso daria muito trabalho; para mim e para você. Talvez um dia…

I wish I could remember the first time I heard of this wonderful film. My regular readers will know of my love for bossa nova music and hearing about this film that celebrated, was inspired by and filled with the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim was definitely exciting. I feel like I actually saw an ad in the newspaper for it when it first played theatres in 2000. Living in a smaller, “rurban” community, I knew it would never play at a theatre near me, though. I’ve mentioned before in these pages a TV channel I used to watch called Bravo that once was a network that was dedicated to arts and entertainment. One night scanning my local listings, I was thrilled to see they were playing Bossa Nova. I taped it onto VHS and finally got to see it. It was even more enchanting than I had hoped and it is now one of my Top 25 favourite films. Eventually, I secured a DVD copy via auction on eBay. Fittingly, the seller was based in Brazil.

The film’s dedication

Sérgio Sant’Anna (1941-2020) was a Brazilian novelist and short story writer. His experimental stories were so nuanced that they flew over the heads of the censors during Brazil’s 1964-1986 military dictatorship. His work inspired a generation of Brazilian writers to find new narrative techniques and his writing was noted by its “sardonic humour, focus upon innovative art, sociopolitical criticism, and marginalized individuals”. I am intrigued by one title I found in his bibliography; O concerto de João Gilberto no Rio de Janeiro (1982; “João Gilberto’s Concert in Rio de Janeiro”). In 1989, he issued Senhorita Simpson, a collection of short stories including “A Senhorita Simpson” that served as the basis for our film.

Director Bruno Barreto (b. 1955) was born in Rio and is a noted filmmaker in his home country. He was married to Amy Irving from 1996 to 2005 and the couple have one child. Bossa Nova was something of a gift to Amy from Bruno. He had promised to feature her in a glamourous role in a film that would celebrate his homeland. His American films include A Show of Force (1990), starring Irving, Andy Garcia, Lou Diamond Phillips, Robert Duvall, Kevin Spacey and Erik Estrada, Carried Away (1996), also with Irving and Dennis Hopper, Amy Locane, Gary Busey and Amy Irving’s mother, Priscilla Pointer, and View from the Top (2003), starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Christina Applegate, Rob Lowe, Mike Myers and Kelly Preston. This last was a bomb and Paltrow herself said it was “the worst movie ever”. Barreto’s parents produced Bossa Nova, a service they have provided on other films directed by their son. The elder Barreto’s comprise one of the bigger production companies in Brazil.

Director Barreto – who says “sometimes I think I make films just to put music on” – had worked with Antônio Carlos Jobim before. In 1983, Barreto directed Gabriela, starring Sônia Braga and Marcello Mastroianni, a film for which Jobim provided the score. Bruno says that Bossa Nova was “totally inspired” by Jobim’s music. The director specifically wanted to use “Inútil Paisagem” as it sums up the theme of his film. In English, the title is “Useless Landscape”, a phrase that refers to the beauty of Rio being wasted if you don’t have someone to share it with.

Amy Irving – she is 47 here – as Mary Ann

Stage and film director Jules Irving (Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II) and actress Priscilla Pointer (The Falcon and the Snowman, Blue Velvet) bore Amy Irving in 1953 in Palo Alto. Amy became a singer and actress who appeared on the stage and on television. After losing out for the role of Princess Leia, Amy broke out in Brain DePalma’s film of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) and then first sang on-screen in 1980’s Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson, with whom Amy had a short relationship. She then gained notice in Barbra Streisand’s Yentyl (1984). To show how ridiculous Hollywood awards can be, Irving was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Yentyl and for the same role – the same work – she was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress.

Remarkably, in 1988, Amy Irving provided the singing voice for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The same year as Bossa Nova, Amy was also seen in the Oscar-winning Traffic and since then has been much more prolific on TV and on stage. One wonders if perhaps Amy Irving isn’t best known for her relationship with Steven Spielberg. The two dated from 1976 to 1980 when they broke up – a rupture that cost Amy her role as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Irving and Spielberg reunited and married in 1985. In 1989, they divorced and Irving was awarded $100 million. Didn’t they have a prenuptial agreement? Yes, they did but a judge ruled it invalid as it had been written on a napkin. That’s $100 million. A prenup is VERY important to me, Steven said, it’s so important I’m just gonna write it up here on this napkin. That being said, by 1989, Steve likely had that much on him.

Senhoras e senhores, Antônio Fagundes

Antônio Fagundes leads the cast of Brazilian actors who are unknown to North American audiences. He exudes charm and class and is a major star in his homeland. Described as a combination of Cary Grant and Marcello Mastroianni, the crowds that had gathered to watch the making of our film would shout for Antônio and surge towards him. The other players in our film are prolific in the industry in their homeland appearing in countless soap operas or telenovelas and all of them have garnered acting awards in Brazil. As an example, Antônio has appeared in over 3600 episodes of 79 different TV series. The other main players in our film account for an additional 7243 episodes of 182 series. It gives one an idea of the entertainment industry in Brazil when you consider these numbers. The telenovela is surely a staple in Latin America.

Pretty Giovanna Antonelli

I would be remiss not to mention the inexplicable inclusion of American actor Stephen Tobolowsky in Bossa Nova. Somehow, character actor Tobolowsky shows up in many notable films, some among my favourites; Spaceballs (1987), Great Balls of Fire! (1989), In Country (1989) with Bruce Willis, Bird on a Wire and The Grifters, two of 5 films he made in 1990, Basic Instinct, Single White Female and Sneakers, three of 8 from ’92, Memento (2000)…117 features and counting for the man from Dallas.

The soundtrack for Bossa Nova is supervised by one Eumir Deodato. He is my man. His name first popped up for me on the Sinatra & Company album from 1971. The Brazilian Fender Rhodes man got his start in bossa nova music before joining Creed Taylor’s label and performing arranging and producing duties for others.

Mary Ann’s student, Nadine, has a picture of Jimmy Stewart on her laptop

He has released stunning records in his day. The 1973 double assault of Prelude and Deodato 2 gave him back-to-back Number One Jazz albums on the US charts. The records somehow melded jazz, disco and classical and the mixture proved successful. The former record began with Deodato’s version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”, a 9-minute tune that was used in the Peter Sellers film Being There and that garnered the cat from Rio a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. The rest of the album combines original music with Claude Debussy and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”. Deodato 2 includes “Nights in White Satin”, Maurice Ravel, “Rhapsody in Blue” and the killer original “Super Strut”. Deodato has a daughter named Kennya who is married to Stephen Baldwin. This couple have a daughter, Hailey Baldwin, who is married to Canada’s Justin Bieber.

On the soundtrack, Deodato performs Jobim classics like “Inútil Paisagem” (“Useless Landscape”), used well at the outset of the movie, setting the tone, and “Samba de uma Nota Só” (“One Note Samba”) that is heard over the opening credits; actually what’s nice is that Barreto presents a collage of lovely images in the opening but there are no actual credits on-screen to mar the view. Deodato submits appropriate original music and additionally we hear a recording from the past. Jobim’s 1994 version of “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”) with Sting is used to stunning effect during a funeral scene.

One of the main goals of the film is to present Rio de Janeiro in the best possible light and this is achieved in spades. The result is that you feel you would do anything to be where these people are; to live and work there. After the visual treat of the opening montage, we are allowed to feast on images of Rio, first at sunrise as Mary Ann takes her daily swim. Notice her swimsuit; it is inspired by the design of the famous sidewalk along Copacabana Beach. Mary Ann’s apartment is decorated brightly to represent her history as a hippie but it is the location that is to die for. It is located in prime exotic real estate. Arpoador is a neighbourhood located in a peninsula between Copacabana and Ipanema and a distinguishing feature is the Arpoador Rock that juts out into the water. The buildings in Arpoador are right on the beach with only a sidewalk between them and the water. I think I’ve been able to pinpoint the area of her apartment on Av. Francisco Bhering. I do not see the courtyard with the lovely foliage of the film but I do recognize the large apartment windows and the way the first floor juts out over the entranceway. A clue is found in the scene depicting Pedro Paulo leaving Mary Ann’s building and looking off to his right. In the distance to his left, you can see the Arpoador Rock (see below). Do yourself a favour; head to your map service of choice and cruise this neighbourhood.

Mary Ann’s apartment in Arpoador
Note the rock, far right © Google Maps

The Copacabana Palace is on display as well. Opened in the summer of 1923, this gem on the beach was built in the style of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. Pedro Paulo and Mary Ann have their date at the hotel’s restaurant, Ristorante Hotel Cipriani, an establishment that shares a name with the popular Cipriani 42nd Street restaurant in NYC, the one from which Harry Connick broadcast Harry for the Holidays. The building that houses both the tailor shop and the English classroom is on Rua Duvivier – though in reality there is no number 534. Duvivier runs briefly from Rua Rabata Ribiero a few blocks down to the beach.

The regal Copacabana Palace

Niterói is the city that lies across the bay from Rio. Many of Niterói’s residents work in Rio and will twice daily take the ferry back and forth across the bay. In our film, both Sharon and Roberto live in Niterói and take the ferry to and from work. Citizens of Rio will often say that the only good thing about Niterói – is the view it has of Rio De Janeiro. The climax of the film takes place at Rio’s airport, known since January 5, 1999 as Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport. It is here where Acácio boards the plane to Manchester while outraged fans chant “Mercenário!”. And it is here we get the pay-off when Pedro Paulo says to Mary Ann “don’t go anywhere”. The filmmakers intentionally chose locations indoors and out that boasted views of Rio’s mountains. Even toiling away at your day job, you can look out the window and see nature’s glory.

Irate fans at the airport

Bossa Nova is a romantic comedy in the classic tradition. It is presented with class and style; just like the music that inspired it. It also was intended to present an idealized version of Rio de Janeiro. It is a sad commentary that the cast and crew have said that they wanted to “rescue the idea” of the Rio of their hearts and minds, one without pollution or violence. Yes, the film makes you want to go to Rio. It’s a wonderful premise; American goes to Brazil to teach English as a second language. But to hear that it wouldn’t be “like that” if you went there today is sad. The film also concerns itself with the “sensuality of languages”. There is a charm and a dynamism in that differing languages are spoken by the players and they are learning to speak in other tongues. It makes for a mating dance of sorts. Never mind the exoticism to English-speaking audiences of the musical Portuguese spoken in Brazil. Case in point is the fine scene depicting Pedro Paulo’s first date with Mary Ann. Fagundes himself came up with the idea that during their conversation, Pedro Paulo would give to Mary Ann by speaking English and she in turn would speak in his native language, Portuguese. It adds much charm to this pivotal scene.

Pedro Paulo slyly compliments Mary Ann’s new blouse and the two go for drinks…
…where Mary Ann reacts to Pedro Paulo’s move
A great line smoothly delivered

There is also the theme of missed opportunities and encounters. Close calls and the chances not taken. Pedro Paulo and Mary Ann walk by each other on the beach before they know each other. Mary Ann says she took her chance and got burned when her husband died. Now she is content to be alone. Pedro Paulo wants another chance with Tânia but it seems he is too late. When Tânia is ready, Pedro Paulo is not. Mary Ann walks towards Pedro Paulo standing in the elevator but then the door closes. Roberto won’t take his chance with Sharon and is one of the few players in the end who has lost.

Tânia begins to drift back towards her husband, Pedro Paulo. Here at the funeral – with half-brother, Roberto – Tânia sees Mary Ann approach and drapes herself on her husband, laying claim
But later – in a great shot – Pedro Paulo shows he is not so sure; absently drinks his beer while Tânia caresses

Speaking of Roberto, I can relate to this character. He loves music and tries to share it with Sharon; it is his method of ingratiating himself with her. He connects with his father through music. His dad was legendary for wooing the ladies and for the way he used music to do it. Pedro Paulo says he was conceived to the sounds of Piaf singing “La Vie en rose”. For Roberto, it was Charles Trenet singing the wonderful “Que reste-t-il de nos amours”, a song that is used to great effect in the film. In the end, Roberto uses this song that became “I Wish You Love” as the spearhead of a mixed tape he makes of his father’s records, “a beautiful tribute”. He plays the tape for Sharon but he’s picked the wrong time and it is too late. Speaking of records, the “Tom Jobim album” Mary Ann leaves for Pedro Paulo is a compilation from 1996 called Blue Note Plays Jobim.

Music – and Juan’s records – loom large over the proceedings
The Jobim record

The mayhem of the second half of the film is handled adroitly by Barreto and his editor. As the director himself has said, it is the pacing during the screwball antics of romantic comedy that make or break a film. In Bossa Nova, the “antics” are balanced somewhat by a death. Through different means, the players all end up in the same place, the hospital. Pedro Paulo mistakenly walks into the room where Mary Ann is being treated, he later thinks she is being accosted – but it’s just Gary mistaking her for Nadine… Later we can add to this Mary Ann getting “stay away” vibes from Pedro Paulo and his wife at the funeral which, remember, is being added to Pedro Paulo’s unfounded concern over Mary Ann and Acácio… Great fun all handled well.

In a wonderfully executed scene, Pedro Paulo makes a blouse for Mary Ann. He didn’t go into the family business but he has the skills and his father is impressed. In this first shot, Pedro Paulo seems to be looking to his father for approval. Nice.
Papa’s impressed

What the viewer can expect from Bossa Nova is an absolutely delightful romantic comedy of the old school. Throw in the gorgeous scenery and the exotic nature of the setting, a cast of attractive unknowns that you do not connect with any other work, an enchanting soundtrack, some well-executed comedy and also some drama that will draw you in to the vagaries of life that these people navigate.


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