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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Kiss of the Spider Woman

After the death of Hector Babenco two weeks ago I'm revisiting his most renowned films. He's most famous for Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1985 film that was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and for which William Hurt won Best Actor.

I saw it upon its original release but after seeing it again two days ago I needed some time to process exactly what I thought of it. It is undeniably brilliant, but the difficulty is figuring out why. It deals with big issues--love, courage, and loyalty, but in ways that one doesn't usually see.

The story is about two men sharing a cell in a South American country during a military dictatorship. Hurt plays Molina, a gay window dresser who is doing time for corrupting a minor. Raul Julia is Valentin, a journalist who is held as a political prisoner.

These men have almost nothing in common, and in the one nod to standard storytelling tropes, they will become friends. But the route to that friendship is fraught, as it becomes known about halfway through the film that Hurt is spying on Julia, providing information to the warden in exchange for being paroled.

During their captivity, Hurt makes the time go by (and uses as a personal escape) telling the plot to his favorite movie, a romance set during World War II. When Julia hears that Nazis are heroes and the French resistance are villains, he realizes it's a German propaganda film. Hurt doesn't care--he's swept up in the beauty and romance of the film, and as he keeps telling it Julia even gets caught up--he wants to know how it comes out.

The film scenes are shown in sepia tones, with Sonia Braga starring as the lead actress. She also plays Julia's great love and, later, plays the title character in a film that Hurt invents, a succubus of sorts that is some kind of metaphor, but I'm not sure for what. At times the film, written by Leonard Schrader, is so sweeping that it glides by details, but perhaps this is for the best, since it doesn't spoon-feed the audience and makes for thought-provoking drama.

Hurt was very deserving of the Oscar. He's always been a consummate actor, sometimes so much that he's ripe for parody, but here it's evident that he is in the skin of his character. His minor facial expressions say volumes, and his whipped dog attitude, mostly in the scenes with the warden, belie his physical stature (I'm still sometimes amazed by an actor's range--here he is playing a beaten down homosexual and years later he plays a macho general in the Hulk movies). Hurt, who ignores politics, has to make a decision at the end of the film, and signals it by putting on a red scarf, which is a thrilling moment.

While it's Hurt's show, Julia is also very good, a man committed to principles, though his sacrifice for them gives him regret which he can't ignore. The two men have terrific chemistry together, particularly in a scene in which Julia, being poisoned without his knowledge, has an episode of diarrhea and Hurt lovingly cleans him up.

I believe Hurt was the first actor to play an openly gay character to win an Oscar. The homosexuality is open--he and Julia have sex, but only after a candle is blown out. They do share a kiss on screen, which for 1985 was fairly provocative.

Babenco only made three English-language films. One of them, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, I saw and do not wish to see again, but I will be taking another look at Ironweed in the days ahead.

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