Nacib, called "The Arab," runs the Vesuvio Bar, which is the central gathering spot for the townspeople of a small Brazilian community in 1925. The men, whether of high or low class, are obsessed with controlling their women. When one of them shoots his wife and her lover, his peers celebrate the act.

Looking for a new servant in the marketplace, Nacib hires Gabriela, an attractive peasant who has fled the rural countryside during a drought. Much to the Arab's delight, he finds her not only to be an excellent cook but an incredible gourmet of sexual play. She comes into his dull life as manna from the wilderness.

Gabriela is based on Jorge Arnado's classic 1958 novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. The story centers on sexual politics while also portraying the flavor and floundering of a community undergoing a transition from the old ways to the modern. Nacib, an outsider, desperately tries to win the approval of the town's power holders. When he sees their delight in Gabriela and one of them suggests he marry her, he follows the advice.

Once they are wed, the level of their mutual passion is greatly diminished. Nacib savors the full bloom of Gabriela's womanhood but is embarrassed by her illiteracy and lack of interest in respectability. She would rather attend a circus than a poetry reading. When he finds her in bed with another man, Nacib kicks Gabriela out of his home and life.

Director Bruno Barreto, who was at the helm of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) again demonstrates his facility for making spicy films that blend sex, comedy and social commentary on Brazilian mores. Sonia Braga, who was so seductive in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and so tantalizingly erotic in I Love You (1982), plays Gabriela as a woman possessing animal magnetism, childlike exuberance, and bold abandonment — a winning combination.

Marcello Mastroianni is convincing as Nacib, a social climber whose good looks, ability to savor pleasure, and vulnerability make him a perfect partner for Gabriela. Eventually, the owner of the Vesuvio Bar realizes that the sexual energy he derives from his relationship with Gabriela is poetry itself. They are reunited in a coupling that could only be described as volcanic.