April 6, 2011

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Hector Babenco
Stars: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga

What it's about. Set in a South American prison. Mincing homosexual William Hurt is cellmates with political prisoner Raul Julia. Hurt attempts to coax information from Julia, which he has promised to government agent Milton Gonçalves in return for a reduced sentence.

Julia has recently been tortured, and expects more of the same. He will likely then be killed. He is grim, and mocks the talkative, sensitive, and effeminate Hurt. But Hurt persists in befriending Julia, and his principal method is describing in painstaking detail a film he had once seen.

In that movie, French nightclub singer Sonia Braga is pursued by German officer Herson Capri. Nightclub cigarette girl Denise Dumont is murdered by French spies. Creepy Resistance operative Antonio Petrin asks Braga to obtain a key map from Capri, to complete a mission that Dumont failed. But Braga instead chooses her blond Aryan lover.

Hurt interprets this movie as an erotic and atmospheric romance. Julia considers it a Nazi propaganda film. Hurt steadily succeeds in winning friendship with Julia, but at the same time he falls in love with Julia, and gives no useful intelligence to his captors.

Hurt is released from prison, and is followed by Gonçalves, who correctly believes that Hurt has been recruited into the underground opposition.

How others will see it. Kiss of the Spider Woman was critically praised, and did well at the Oscars, where it won Best Actor (Hurt) and was nominated in the prestigious categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Undoubtedly, Hurt won because he was playing a gay character. Some feel that Hurt's performance was over the top, but gays can be flamboyantly out of the closet, and the character is not intended to be representative.

The user ratings at imdb.com are high at 7.5 out of 10. Interestingly, the highest demographic among adult viewers comes from women over 45, who grade the film 8.0. Presumably, this group sympathisizes with both of the deeply troubled leads, despite their flaws.

How I felt about it. This film invites discussion of homosexuals, but we will not take the bait, and instead concentrate on the politics. The source novel was written by an Argentine, and the director is Brazilian. Argentina, the land of Eva Peron, was especially prone to repressive military dictatorships. The country the film is set in remains unspecified, but Portuguese-language signs suggest Brazil.

Since the setting is contemporary to 1985, the first question is, is the movie an indictment of the then-present Brazilian government? Sort of. Brazil was a military dictatorship prior to April 1985. In other words, during the film's production. But by the time the film was released, Brazil had become a democratic republic. Thus, the movie condemns the prior government, a much less daring statement.

Ironically, given the change in government during production, the film implies that the revolution will fail. Minor character Americo (Fernando Torres) has been part of the resistance movement for decades, yet Julia states that during that time he had "accomplished almost nothing." The secret police appears on top of the limited underground movement, and it also looks like Julia will die in vain.

Yet Hurt and Julia never quite give up hope. You take what today and tomorrow bring, and hope for the best despite your actions, which short-change your future.