The son of Brazilian film producers, precocious filmmaker Bruno Barreto made his directing debut with "Tati", Brazil's official entry at the 1973 Moscow Film Festival, and was only 22 when he scored an international hit with "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" (1977), a comedy of sexual manners starring Sonia Braga as a woman who entertains the affections of her deceased playboy husband, as well as those of her ho-hum living spouse. Adapted from the novel by Jorge Amado, it paired him for the first time with screenwriter Leopoldo Serran, with whom he would also co-write "Amor Bandido/Beloved Lover" (1979), enhancing his international reputation, and "Gabriela" (1983), adapted from another Amado novel and again starring Braga. Unfortunately, these films fell far short of the phenomenal success of "Dona Flor", which had outpaced "Jaws" (1975) on its Brazilian home grounds. Director Robert Mulligan later reworked the material for a pallid Americanized version, "Kiss Me Goodbye" (1983), with Sally Field starring opposite James Caan and Jeff Bridges.
Barreto's English-language directorial debut, the political thriller "A Show of Force" (1990), introduced him to future wife Amy Irving, a frequent player in his subsequent features. After helming the underrated middle-aged romance "Carried Away" (1996), starring Irving and Dennis Hopper, he enjoyed his biggest success since "Dona Flor" with "Four Days in September" (1997), a docudrama about the 1969 kidnapping of the US Ambassador to Brazil, Charles Elbrick (Alan Arkin). Refusing to pass moral judgment on either the kidnappers or the American-backed Brazilian dictatorship, Barreto focused instead on the psychological repercussions of real-life events, alienating Brazilian leftists and arguably robbing the story of some of its potential bite. Adapted from Fernando Gabeira's 1979 first-hand account, "O Que E Isso, Companheiro?", the picture evolved slowly from its original black-white treatment through six versions over more than a decade with Serran coming on board late to write the absorbing material that finally made it to the screen. Although criticized by some as "Costa-Gavras 'Light'", it managed to snag an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film.
Barreto then stumbled with his next project, the outdated crime actioner "One Tough Cop" (1998), adapted from the autobiographical book by former NYC detective Bo Dietl. Attempting to mimic landmark examples of the genre like "The French Connection" (1971) and "Serpico" (1973), the film fell short of the mark, despite the fine cast that included Steven Baldwin (as Dietl), Mike McGlone as a ruthless gangster and a virtually unrecognizable Amy Irving as a humorless, foul-mouthed FBI agent. Barreto tailored his next project to his wife's talents, helming the romantic comedy "Bossa Nova" (1999), with Irving as an American teacher living in Brazil who finds an unlikely romance.