"Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," a classic erotic comedy by Brazil's Bruno Barreto, establishes the 23-year-old director as the latest international filmmaking prodigy.

The film, made when Barreto was 22 - an improbable age for such an achievement - reflects a joyously humorous and sensuous temperament, and the pleasure of discovering him is enhanced by the exuberance and genaility of his style.

"Dona Flor," which opens today at the West End Circle, has the pleasurable clarity and familiarity of a folk tale. In fact, folklorists could probably identify variations of the same fanciful triangle in the sexual myths, fables and jokes of many creatures.

This blithe Brazilian story, adapted by Barreto from a prominent novel by Jorge Amadot is set in Bahia in the late '30s and early '40s. The story begins with a prologue commemorating the day in 1943 when the heroine , a beautiful and affectionate treasure named Dona Flor, becomes a widow.

The morning after an all-night Carnival revel, Dona Flor's dissolute but beloved husband Vadinho finally carouses himself into an early grave, collapsing on the street while dancing with mad abandon in an agressively lewd costume - blouse and skirt, with a grotesque artificial phallus flopping beneath the skirt.

As the striken Dona Flor embraces her dead husband, the credits roll and we hear the first rendition of Chico Buarque's swirling, insinuating theme song, "What Could It Be?," in which metaphors about the mystery and perversity of romantic love multiple so rapidly and rapturously that they seem to overflow the haunting melody. With Buarque's invaluable assistance, Barreto creates a heady romantic comedy mood and never loses it.

In flashback we discover why the respectable, long-suffering Dona Flor adored her disreputable, incorrigible Vadinho. Although he abused her, stole from her, cheated on her, he also thrilled her in a way she could not resist. The fable requires one to accept Vadinho as a drunken lout and erotic genius at one and the same time.

After a prolonged period of mourning, Dona Flor finds "widow's migraine" less and less bearable. She enters into a second martial union with a man totally unlike Vadinho. Her second husband, the neighborhood pharmacist Teodoro, is kind, generous and faithful. Teodoro and Dona Flor are even sexually compatible. But there's a slight catch: Teodoro is a completely conventional lover. Dona Flor isn't dissatisfied, but there are times when she feels an overwhelming desire for the talents of the wild, unpredictable Vadinho. With the help of a little imagination, she contrives to achieve a happy reconciliation between her nice and naughty selves.

"Dona Flor" may be psychologically dubious, another case of men projecting their fantasies of a woman's desire onto a female protagonist. But who can say for certain? "Dona Flor" proves sublimely effective for the transient purposes of stylized romantic gratification. Even in Amado and Barreto deceive themselves about the nature of Dona Flor's desires, the fact remains that some forms of romantic projection are more flattering, gallant and affectionate than others.

The film is free of the nasty undertones detectable in Bunuel's "Belle de Jour," where the filmmaker can't help gloating about the dirty thoughts he perceives behind the heroine's chaste facade. The motive behind the suggestiveness of "Dona Flor" appears sincerely loving. Amado and Barreto take pleasure in the thought of their heroine's pleasure.

As Dona Flor, Sonia Braga is such an appealing and responsive actress that her performance would have captivated moviegoers even if Amado and barreta had failed to clarify their feelings. It will be a terrible deprivation to the public if Braga somehow fails to become an international star of the magnitude of Sophia Loren, Jeanne Moreau and Liv Ullmann. A screen beauty with earthy attributes and a thrillingly expressive face, Braga creates that peculiarly satisfying illusion of attainable loveliness.

In recent weeks several young actresses have made distinctively seductive impressions on the screen: Lesley-Anne Down in "The Besty," Nancy Allen in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," Brook Shields in "Pretty Baby" and now Sonia Braga in "Dona Flor." It will be interesting to see if the modern film business even recognizes such desirable feminine talent, let alone capitalizes on it.

Jose Wilker makes Vadinho an amusing reprobate. Not all all an impressive physical specimen, Wilker portrays Vadinho's sexiness as a complacent, lecherous presumption. He's ruled completly by his appetities, and these give him a maniacal, irresistable determination. He seems barely human, a point that is exploited for ironic humor in the latter stages of the story. Vadinho is closer to an imp, a personification of Libido. Mauro Mendonca contributes an equally witty performance in a totally different vein as the upstanding Teodoro.

Barreto's technique is admirably deft at every crucial turn. A precocious romantic sophisticated, he blends sheer technical facility with a magnannimous, sensual outlook. Even the grainy, thickly textured color, which may strike some American eyes as excessive or amatourish, serves an expressive purpose by reinforcing the primitive wit of the story and exoticism of the settings.

Barreto uses Dona Flor's skill as a cook to link culinary and sexual pleasure in perhaps the wittiest visual terms since "Tom Jones." His lust for life seems as strong as Vadinho's but himanely refined by his artistic sensibility. Barreto can express lust wih class, and it's an exhilarating, civilized gift.