Kiss of the Spider Woman (Brazil/United States, 1985)

June 01, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kiss of the Spider Woman Poster

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a fascinating character study - an exploration into how a bond of kinship can develop between two very different men, each of whose present circumstances is erected on a foundation of secrets. The film, based on the novel by Manuel Puig (who was involved in shaping the screenplay, although his role in that arduous process is uncredited), is a drama masquerading as a thriller. It contains many of the familiar lurid trappings, but when one examines it in detail, it's easy to see that the "thriller" elements are window dressing. Every moment in Kiss of the Spider Woman is about the relationship between prison cellmates Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin (Raul Julia), even when only one or neither of them is on screen.

One could make a case that the long, tortured story of how Kiss of the Spider Woman made it to the screen is as fascinating as the film itself. Certainly, the documentary about this subject (which can be found on the Blu-Ray and DVD Collector's Editions of the movie) makes for engaging and informative viewing. Director Hector Babenco began his quest to shape the production in 1982. His first hurdle was to convince Puig to sell the rights - no easy feat. Babenco's fortunes appeared to have taken a turn for the better when Burt Lancaster expressed enthusiasm for playing the part of Molina, but Lancaster's participation came with a price - he wanted final script approval. (In fact, he wrote his own "treatment.") Ultimately, health concerns and creative differences forced him out, giving rising star William Hurt, fresh from the success of Body Heat and with The Big Chill upcoming, a chance to step in to a part he coveted. Financing was problematic. With no studio backing the endeavor, it was funded by a series of independent backers in Brazil and the United States. Babenco's poor understanding of English led to on-set confusion. Parts of the script were re-written (by screenwriter Leonard Schrader and Puig, who often disagreed) as the film developed. Hurt and Bebenco clashed so violently that they ended up not speaking to one another. But when Kiss of the Spider Woman became the hot ticket at the 1985 Cannes film festival and went on to smash records during its limited U.S. art house run, it rose from obscurity to Oscar nominee. (It lost to Out of Africa in the Best Picture category, but William Hurt won Best Actor.)

Kiss of the Spider Woman takes place within the confines of a prison cell in an unnamed South American country. The two men sharing the "accommodations "couldn't be more different. Molina is a flamboyant homosexual who has been jailed for sex crimes. He is ignorant about politics and gets through his ordeal by escaping into a fantasy world, narrating aloud and re-creating one of his favorite movies, a Nazi melodrama, to his reluctant cell-mate. Valentin, a journalist by trade, is a political dissident; he has been tortured but has not given up any names (by his later account, he doesn't know that much). He detests Molina' apolitical outlook on life and is irritated by the man's affection for a movie he considers to be offensive. The film's third player is Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who has three parts: the lead in the Nazi melodrama; the title character, who comes from another of Molina' tales; and Valentin's former girlfriend. Within the confines of the cell, reality and fantasy become entwined.

As the story unfolds, these two connect in sometimes unexpected ways. We learn that Molina is a plant, working for the warden. In exchange for gaining Valentin's confidence and learning some of the information he is hiding, Molina has been offered an early release. But, the more deeply he probes, the more Molina feels remorse for what he is doing. He keeps the secrets he learns and does what he can to comfort and aid the other man. Valentin, in response, becomes more open to Molina as a man and his prejudice against his fellow prisoner's sexual orientation retreats. Beyond the walls of their current place of confinement, they were two very different people with divergent principles and life philosophies. Within the prison, their differences are minimized.

As is invariably the case with any movie in which the central focus is on characters and their relationships, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an actors' canvas. William Hurt, stepping outside his comfort zone, inhabits Molina in a way that highlights the character's flamboyance without transforming him into an over-the-top caricature. The danger of the latter is present - Molina treads the line between reality and fantasy, speaks of himself as a woman mistakenly born in a man's body, and routinely ignores elements of life that are inconvenient or unappealing. Hurt humanizes Molina, crafting a personality who earns our sympathy even after we learn of his betrayal of Valentin. The late Raul Julia is Hurt's perfect foil: the rugged, macho Marxist revolutionary who must admit to being less of an idealist than his persona might indicate, and who has difficulty coping with his affection for his cellmate. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hurt's is the showy role while Julia's is the more grounded. Sonia Braga, who did not know English at the time, was forced to pronounce words phonetically. This approach is oddly effective since she is seen primarily in fantasy sequences and movie re-creations. It emphasizes the unreality of the circumstances and the cheesiness of the productions with which Molina is infatuated.

Kiss of the Spider Woman has lost none of its power over the years. The simplicity of its setting, in opposition to the complexity of the relationships, takes it outside time. While it's true that some of the late scenes transpire outside of the prison, one doesn't recall them with the clarity or the force of the interaction between Molina and Valentin. For a film in which one of the characters has a strong political backstory, Kiss of the Spider Woman is surprisingly apolitical. Although Valentin is being tortured and brutalized by a corrupt, totalitarian regime for Marxist ideals, the movie is careful to keep things generic: no specific country or government is identified and no details are provided. Kiss of the Spider Woman is about relationships and how one views life, not about the oppression of people in South American dictatorships.

For Babenco, not only was completing Kiss of the Spider Woman the fulfillment of years of dogged, borderline-obsessive effort, it was the first of three consecutive impressive efforts (the other two being Ironweed, with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord). When one considers the obstacles arrayed before him - a difficult novelist, an English-language screenplay, a contentious relationship with his star, a rights dispute (the original screenplay called for Molina to narrate a third fantasy story - Cat People - but Universal would not allow it), and the absence of a distributor (at least before Cannes) - it's a testimony to his perseverance that the picture was not only made but works in its final form. Ultimately, it lost the Oscar race to Out of Africa, which was the safe choice. Nevertheless, although I would not champion Kiss of the Spider Woman as the best film of 1985, it is more compelling and involving than Sydney Pollack's sumptuous but largely hollow period piece. Out of Africa is a feast for the eyes. Kiss of the Spider Woman strikes deeper.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Brazil/United States, 1985)

Director: Hector Babenco
Cast: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga
Screenplay: Leonard Schrader, based on the novel by Manuel Puig
Cinematography: Rodolfo Sanchez
Music: John Neschling
U.S. Distributor: Island Alive
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1985-07-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1