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'O Amor Natural': Joy of Good Old Love, or at Least Lust

by Stephen Holden

NEW YORK -- Truman Capote, observing the 60-ish Katherine Anne Porter flirt with a handsome young man, is reported to have once remarked acidly that "the last thing that dies in a snake is the tail." Restated in a kinder way, our sexual urges may diminish with age, but they never completely vanish. Desire lives on in memory if not in action.

The notion that sexuality and the life force are synonymous lies at the heart of Heddy Honigmann's wise but lighthearted documentary, "O Amor Natural," which opens Wednesday at the Film Forum.

In this meditation on desire, memory and age, the filmmaker invites randomly chosen older people in Rio de Janeiro to read aloud the erotic verses of the Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who died in 1987.

The volume from which they read was published posthumously because Drummond worried that his language would be considered pornographic. But translated into movie subtitles, his rhapsodically sensual odes to lovemaking and female body parts, and his celebrations of his own anatomy ("a gentle leaping jaguar") are only slightly more explicit than the Song of Solomon.

Almost to a person, these impromptu readers, all in their 60s, 70s and 80s, are not only unembarrassed but delighted by what they read, and many are stimulated to confide their own erotic histories. Interwoven among the interviews are shots of beautiful young people frisking on the beaches of Rio de Janiero.

A still vigorous, but sexually inactive 85-year-old man recalls his happy 50-year marriage to a woman who tolerated his numerous affairs because she never doubted his love. "Variety," he says without making excuses, was essential to his well-being.

An 81-year-old woman who swam in the 1936 Olympics in Germany reads a poem about making love in a shower that evokes a mystical connection in her mind between sex and water. Recalling her sex life, a weather-beaten woman scoffs at "softy" lovemaking, declaring that she could only be satisfied by being taken violently, "because I am violent."

The filmmaker also interviews acquaintances of Drummond's, including a hat maker who supplied him with his Panama fedoras and remembers the poet as a rakishly elegant man who was quite vain. We hear Drummond's voice reciting his own verses from an album he recorded in 1972.

If the movie is groundbreaking in its focus on geriatric sexuality, its mostly upbeat picture of older people smiling contentedly as they dredge up ancient flings and quenched passions is a reassuringly sentimental portrait of old age.

Most of the subjects look back on youth with a rosy benignity that is largely untainted by bitterness and regret. Late in the film, only one woman who had a very active sex life admits, on the verge of tears, that she was lying when she said she wasn't nostalgic.

A word of warning: "O Amor Natural" is likely to leave you itching to go out and make hay while the sun shines.



Directed by Heddy Honigmann; in Portuguese, with English subtitles; director of photography, Jose Guerra; edited by Marc Nolens; produced by Pieter van Huystee; released by First Run Features and First Run/Icarus Films. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., South Village. Running time: 76 minutes. This film is not rated.

FEATURING: Residents of Rio de Janeiro.

December 31, 1997 New York Times