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Just Ignore the Rewrites

The Hollywood powers that be wanted to change Vera Blasi's script about a Brazilian woman taking charge of her life. But this time, the underdog won.

May 07, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

Screenwriter Vera Blasi need only close her eyes to return to her native Brazil. In her mind, she hears her nanny lulling her to sleep, singing about Iemanja, the Goddess of the Sea. She can smell the aromas wafting from the kitchen, where the mixture of sea salt, sweet onions, garlic and shrimp would create a symphony of flavors in her mouth. The earthy smell of rain and mud takes her back to those languorous childhood afternoons, as she waited out the tremendous thunderstorms that would suddenly sweep across Sao Paulo.

Ahhh saudades (a melancholy longing), you can almost hear her sigh.

To Blasi, Brazil is not only a country--it's a state of mind. Brazilians write songs, poetry about their country, not as patriots, but as if Brazil were a lover.

Wanting to compose an ode to her native land, Blasi wrote "Woman on Top," scheduled for release by Fox Searchlight in July. The romantic comedy, starring Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, could be compared to the films "The Scent of Green Papaya" from Vietnam or "Like Water for Chocolate" from Mexico, where food is a central character, capturing part of the country's essence, and where affection for the homeland is palpable.

Although Brazil's poverty was forcefully captured by Walter Salles in his Oscar-nominated 1998 film, "Central Station," Blasi wanted to show the other side: the romantic, colorful and hopeful Brazil that coexists with the bleaker part.

"Brazil is so big and has so many different aspects, I wanted to write something that explored the beautiful side," Blasi said. "I didn't have a theme or a message at that point. I just wanted to show my country to people."

The film is really a comic fable about a young Bahiana--a girl from Bahia--played by Cruz who flees Brazil and her philandering husband to discover herself.

On her voyage, Isabela (Cruz) settles down with a childhood friend in San Francisco, where she finds work as a cooking instructor. Her culinary skills--and breathtaking beauty--land her on a local television cooking show, where she becomes one of the most popular attractions.

Soon enough, she learns a few lessons about herself, love and her destiny. The film, which is in English, is saturated with vibrant reds, blues and yellows by French cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Brazilian music, composed for the film, is constantly in the background, as are elements of magic realism often associated with Latin America: Isabela casts spells to deal with her romantic setbacks.

The fact that such a film was made is somewhat of a miracle considering neither Blasi nor director Fina Torres (who's from Venezuela) were well-known when production began. Cruz was proposed for the leading role two years ago--before American audiences or studio executives knew who she was. Now the 24-year-old Cruz is a hot property in Hollywood--to the glee of Fox Searchlight executives: She's been on the cover of GQ and Vanity Fair, starred in Pedro Almodovar's Oscar-winning "All About My Mother," and has a lead role in the upcoming "All the Pretty Horses," directed by Billy Bob Thornton and co-starring Matt Damon.

Executives at Fox Searchlight are hoping to capitalize on Cruz's growing fame and the film's lively comedy and appealing Brazilian style to sell "Woman on Top" as a more mainstream movie, not a small, art-house flick.

'We really believe that this is a very commercial film that will appeal to all members of the audience," said Joe Pichirallo, senior vice president for production at Fox Searchlight. "It crosses all ethnic and age barriers. We have the marketing resources to really push this film out."

The screenplay underwent several incarnations--some so extreme that Blasi no longer recognized her story. Eventually, the film was completed for less than $10 million, and Blasi's original story was restored.


"Woman on Top" has many autobiographical elements, including one that has the main character spinning.

Blasi is an avid cook herself, enjoying not only Brazilian food, but also the Italian and Lebanese cuisine of her heritage (her father was Lebanese, her mother Italian). Her English is lilted with a soft Portuguese accent that becomes especially apparent when she says "Brazil"--she pronounces it "Brausil," with a melodic inflection.

"I thought everybody in the world had this strange background where people came from every place," said Blasi, who lived both in New York and Sao Paulo during her teenage years. "For me the strange thing was when I had friends who were completely one thing and didn't know anything else. Brazil is very much a melting pot, just like the United States."

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