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Braga--The Thrill From Brazil : Despite Her Sexy Image, 'Milagro' Star Stays Firmly Grounded in Reality

March 23, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Sonia Braga can tell you in two words exactly what made her become an actress.

Jack Nicholson.

The year was 1972. Barely 20, Braga had read Kafka, seen the new films of Jean-Luc Godard and worked--to help support her family--in Brazilian TV soap operas. Then, in rapid succession, she saw "Easy Rider" and "Five Easy Pieces."

"When I saw 'Easy Rider,' I was really impressed by the actor who played the lawyer," she recalled, sipping tomato soup at a West Hollywood cafe. "Then I saw him again in 'Five Easy Pieces.' And I thought, who is this wonderful man, Jack Nicholson? He was so moving. When he took his father up to the mountains and talked to him about love--aaahhh!"

Braga's eyes grew misty as she relished the memory. "It touched me so deeply that I said to myself, Aha!" She snapped her fingers. "I want to do that! If that's acting, I'd like to try it."

Since then, Braga has not only become an actress, but an international sex symbol--the thrill from Brazil--largely due to the erotic charge of her performance in 1978's worldwide hit "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands."

Now she's back on screen as one of the stars of "The Milagro Beanfield War," a film about a rural New Mexico community's battle to protect its land from a giant development company.

Eager to talk despite a long day of TV appearances and photo shoots, the lissome actress fortified herself with soup and a rare steak, followed by several cups of espresso. Lighting up a cigarette, she launched into a lively series of sagacious lectures on Brazilian politics, sex, mysticism, machismo, feminism and cinema.

These torrential monologues were slowed only by an occasional search for an apt English expression. Braga's vocabulary has improved considerably, but she still wrestles with obscure phrases and ceaselessly questioned her visitor about newly discovered lingo.

"My favorite is satellite dish-- it's a TV receiver, but you call it a dish, huh?" she wondered aloud, rolling the words on her tongue. "What can I say--your slang is so unusual!"

Paul Mazursky, who directed her in the upcoming comedy "Moon Over Parador," admired Braga's mixture of spontaneity and savvy intellect.

"She's that rare actress who's really grounded in reality," he said. "There's something unspoiled about her. I'd only seen her in roles with a wild sexuality, so you might expect someone--well, less bright. But she's smart, instinctual and always willing to help the film. She'd come by and visit with the crew even when she didn't have any scenes to do."

It's easy to see why Braga has inspired bouquets of flowery prose, especially from bedazzled male admirers. Arnold Jabor, who directed her in the film "I Love You," lauded her "silver nitrate soul." Interview magazine's Mark Ginsburg gushed: "Braga is everything good about Brazil."

And try to top "Milagro" producer-director Robert Redford, who has said: "If you put the sky, stars, moon, sun, river and earth together, you would have Sonia's mind."

Yes--at 37, Braga remains a beauty, and such a natural one that she happily posed for a newspaper photo shoot without makeup. With her impassioned opinions, inquisitive manner and seductive smile, the 5-foot-3 actress is still--as Marcello Mastroianni put it--"much woman."

You could say much the same about Ruby Archuleta, the character Braga plays in "Milagro," who runs a local body shop and leads her town's fight against the greedy developer.

"When I first read the story, it was like I already knew Ruby--she was very close to me," said Braga, holding a small, bony hand to her chest. "The script has so many connections with myself and my culture. The film is in New Mexico, but the problems these people face--people fighting for their land and for their culture--could happen anywhere.

"There is something special about people who are connected to the earth, who grow their food and make their living from the land. And what land!"

Braga waved her arms in the air. "The first day I came there, it rained. One side of the sky was totally black with clouds, but as you looked across the sky, it turned blue and a lighter blue and then, in the west, it was all red and yellow as the sun went down.

"And because of the rain, you saw not one but two rainbows. It was such a beautiful sight that I called a friend in Brazil, just so I could talk about all the lights and colors."

She beamed. "It took me forever to describe everything because I cried so much."

Braga also identified with the sly mysticism that gives "Milagro's" story line its unpredictable quirks. In its days as a Portuguese colony, Brazil was home to a large population of African slaves whose native ceremonies have been absorbed throughout the culture.

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