Thirty years after its Cannes Film Festival debut, Héctor Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman gets a special edition release on DVD and Blu-ray. A gay man accused of ‘corrupting a minor’, Molina (William Hurt), and political prisoner Valentin (Raul Julia) find themselves sharing a prison cell during the Brazilian military Junta. A left wing journalist, Valentin has been tortured and expects to be tortured again as the authorities try to break him and get him to betray his subversive group. Recovering crouched in his bunk, he listens while Molina seeks to distract both of them with an embroidered story about a film he once saw. Valentin warns Molina away from too much erotica – ‘No women’ – but is also appalled to find that Molina’s beloved movie is actually a piece of Nazi war propaganda.
In the film within a film, we see Sônia Braga as a glamorous nightclub singer who finds herself in the middle of an intrigue between the Resistance and her admirer, the head of SS intelligence. Imagine Casablanca rewritten by Goebbels. Adapted by Leonard Schrader from Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman weaves a suitably complex web of intrigues, love, friendship and betrayal. As well as the gritty reality of the prison – shot on location in Brazil – there are other internal prisons. As a transgender woman, Molina is trapped in a man’s body and unable to express his sexuality with impunity. His attempts to play the system are perilous to say the least and his performances are both camply knowing and daringly naïve. His escapism contrasts with Valentin’s political commitment and engagement with the world as it is, but Molina incisively detects roleplaying in Valentin’s self-abnegation and wishful thinking in his revolutionary politics, in many ways just as flighty as Molina’s dreams of feather boas and champagne flutes. Together a reluctant friendship begins to form as Valentin learns to appreciate Molina’s humanity and his kindness and Molina responds to his cellmate’s bravery and doomed predicament.
Meanwhile the authorities, in the form of a homophobic policeman played by Milton Gonçalves and the prison governor (José Lewgoy), intrigue to have Molina betray his friend and even poison him. Although the political circumstances that made both the novel and the film so vital at the time rapidly changed – a civilian President was to take over the year of the film’s release and in 1988 Brazil’s constitution was finally ratified guaranteeing a democratic state – Kiss of the Spider Woman still feels vital and necessary. William Hurt would deservedly win an Academy Award for his role as the metaphorically tortured Molina, although Raul Julia is equally brilliant as the actually tortured Valentin. Despite the romanticism of both characters, Babenco maintains a hard won pessimism, affording his audience little in the way of consolation. In the No Man’s Land between the personal and the political, the two men meet and manage against all odds to maintain their own integrity.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty