Kiss of the Spider Woman: a multi-layered plot and excellent acting and direction create a powerful film classic

Hector Babenco, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985)

I had read the Manuel Puig novel of the same name many years ago and found it an enjoyable and informative exposition of how people can cope with living under an oppressive political regime by escaping into fantasy and thus preserving some semblance of their personal integrity. The film is quite faithful to the novel’s main thrust though many details have been changed.

One major detail in which the film differs from the novel is the setting for the action. Whereas the novel is set in Argentina in the late 1970s, the era of military rule, the film is set in Brazil during the same time period: Brazil was also under military government. Two prisoners, Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) share a cell in a prison in a large unidentified city: Molina, an effeminate gay transvestite shop assistant, has been jailed for corrupting a minor and Arregui is a political revolutionary convicted of having worked with a group to overthrow the government of the day. Initially the two men have nothing in common but Molina tells Arregui about his favourite movies to pass the time and comfort Arregui who misses his girlfriend Marta (Sonia Braga) and who gets hauled out of the cell periodically to be questioned and tortured by his jailers.

The movies featured in the film are changed from those in the novel (which included “Cat People” and a zombie film) but include a film about a beautiful woman (Braga) who acts as a spy for the French Resistance in France during World War II and at the same time is romanced by a high-ranking Nazi officer, and a film about a beautiful spider woman (Braga again) who is trapped by her spider web on a tropical island.

As the film progresses, viewers realise that the jailers are giving Arregui poisoned food as a form of torture to force him to give up the names of his co-conspirators (but which he refuses to do). The jailers then try another track: they promise Molina early parole if he will entice Arregui into revealing the names of his co-conspirators. Molina and Arregui develop a deep friendship and love, and this puts Molina into a troubling ethical and moral situation not unlike that of the French woman spy torn between her patriotism and love for the Nazi officer in his favourite movie. Molina’s dilemma deepens when Arregui gives him a telephone number and a message for his co-conspirators after Molina has finished serving his sentence and is free to go home.

The film may be slow for most viewers and most of it is dialogue between the two main characters (not surprisingly as the novel is heavily based on dialogue and structured like a play). Hurt and Julia play their roles convincingly: Hurt’s Molina is theatrical, melodramatic and very mannered yet not at all hammy; and Julia’s Arregui, at first a conventional Latin American macho man and idealistic if one-dimensional revolutionary, learns tolerance and acceptance and comes to respect Molina’s choices. In doing so, Arregui learns about the different forms of freedom and how one can use fantasy as a form of escape to preserve one’s integrity. Braga does a sterling job playing three roles which are essentially fantasy women or an ideal of womanhood.

On one level the film posits a choice between being free and being a slave, and how escape into fantasy is entwined into that choice. Molina uses fantasy to cope with being an outsider and being gay and effeminate in a society that is aggressively macho (without knowing what it is to be masculine); Arregui views Molina’s escapism as a way of avoiding engagement with society and languishing in victimhood. Over the course of the film, Molina acknowledges his alienation from mainstream society and the loneliness, longing for fulfillment and connection, and lack of direction he feels. On the other hand, Arregui discovers through Molina that escape into fantasy is a form of freedom and comfort that helps preserve his sanity and lessen the trauma of physical torture. On another level, the film is also about how people may use one another for various subversive purposes and how this can create inner personal conflict: both the oppressive right-wing regime and Arregui use Molina for their own ends and this not only creates anguish for Molina but results in tragedy. One might well ask which of the two men, Molina and Arregui, ends up suffering more – and for what purpose.

Despite being mostly confined to a prison cell, the film ranges far and wide thanks to a screenplay that includes dreams, fantasy and flashbacks, cinematography that features some very unusual camera angles and different filters and colours to achieve a mystery glamour in the World War II scenes, and the layered plot that unpeels and reveals its subtleties gradually. Ironically, the scenes outside the prison seem very flat and less interesting than what happens inside the prison.

It would seem that humour has no place in a film such as this but the funniest aspect of the narrative is one in which Molina blackmails and extracts nutritious food for himself and Arregui from the prison authorities as exchange for the information he is supposed to give them about Arregui’s revolutionary comrades. The jailers do not realise they are being used as much as they are using Molina!

Issues of fantasy and idealisation (whether of political freedom or of sexual and social stereotypes) versus reality, freedom versus confinement (mental as well as physical), the need for people to find personal worth and love in a society that punishes and alienates them, and the choices people are faced with in living under conditions of political or social repression permeate the film and provide the basis for excellent acting and direction that turn “Kiss of the Spider Woman” into a very powerful film.


Elite Squad: powerful and thought-provoking study of police corruption and violence

Jose Padilha, “Elite Squad” (2007)

An examination of corruption and brutality in a special forces unit of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil as it battles drug dealers in the slums of Rio (the city), this film by Jose Padilha is worth seeing, despite its frequently shocking violence, for its depiction of the super-macho culture within the unit and the dehumanising effects this has on the individuals serving there. How the officers then spread that psychological degradation through their violence to their families and the favelas they operate in is also portrayed to good effect. At the same time, audiences need to be fairly thick-skinned and forgiving as the film can go into what seems like unnecessary plot diversions which eventually converge into the main story that includes the transformation of one initially well-meaning and intelligent police officer into a hardened killing machine.

The film’s events play from the viewpoint of Captain Roberto Nascimento (Walter Moura) who does the voice-over narration and who is as unreliable and blinkered in his outlook as first-person narrators can be; he’s one of the leaders in the BOPE (Special┬áPolice Operations Battalion) charged with eliminating the drug trade in Rio’s slum districts, known as favelas. Nascimento is suffering from burn-out and realises his work is affecting his marriage; his wife is about to give birth and he wants to see his child grow up. He wants to resign from front-line duty but must choose his replacement; his choice narrows to two men, Matias (Andres Ramiro), a level-headed, almost intellectual type whose passion for front-line work is untested, and Neto (Caio Junqueira) who has the heart and energy but tends to act before he thinks. Nascimento’s seniors order him to stay in the force until after the Pope’s visit to Rio which is several months away, well after the birth of his first child. Office politics, training a successor and personal issues aside, there is also the problem of Matias’s law studies which bring that man into a group of university students who work with a group of cocaine dealers led by a guy called Baiano in one favela, giving Nascimento no end of headaches in the short time he has before he can rejoin real life.

The narrative does jump around from one plot diversion to another with much of its first hour revolving around Matias going to lectures and visiting some students working in a favela with a social worker, and Neto arguing with a mechanic over police car repairs, interspersed with a drug raid which the two men as regular police officers participate in. The second hour begins with Matias and Neto undergoing training with other officers to join the BOPE. With the film’s pace and tension going up and down, some momentum may be lost as the focus swings from one plot strand to another. Eventually when Baiano and the uni students figure out Matias’s identity from a newspaper article and Baiano decides to trap and kill Matias, not knowing that in the meantime Matias has joined the BOPE, the plot diversions merge and from then on the film’s momentum rises steadily to the climax; but not before viewers learn something of the day-to-day life of the BOPE members, their peculiar gang-like ways, bonding customs (which include Neto getting the BOPE emblem tattooed on his arm), initiation rituals during training and, most of all, their narrow perspective which sees all drug dealers and the people they deal with and supply to as just scum.

With lots of often jerky handheld camera shots and constant panning between people conversing together, the film has a strong documentary feel that elevates the impact of the violence when it occurs. The frantic rush of drug raid scenes, with hurried tracking shots, is leavened with more leisurely flashback of scenes of Matias strolling to university or the social worker’s office, and of brief scenes of Nascimento at home arguing with his wife, cradling his newborn son or scoffing tablets to cope with his anxiety attacks and dizzy spells. The film’s strong focus on Nascimento and Matias, and what their behaviour reveals about BOPE beliefs and practices, means that theirs are the only fully developed characters and viewers may sympathise with their viewpoints and actions, no matter how reprehensible and unethical they are. As Nascimento and Matias, Moura and Ramiro play their parts effectively as two police officers required to suppress their feelings and personal opinions and give their lives over as servants of an institution much greater than themselves, doing God’s work as it were (with inquisitorial zeal).

The film does an excellent job showing up the hypocrisy of the middle and upper classes, represented by the young and naive university students, who condemn the police for their brutality and corrupt practices yet co-operate with Baiano in his drug-trafficking activities and buy the drugs themselves, supporting the trade. There is the suggestion that they help him police the favela with his own brand of stand-over tactics and violence. What the film fails to do – and this is its major weakness – is show the effects of the war between the police and the drug gangs on the favela residents themselves; the poor are merely passive bystanders or victims to be shot at or harassed for information. We see their neighbourhoods being turned into war zones but we learn nothing of what they think about the drug trade, the warring sides and how the conflict hurts them and their communities.

“Elite Squad” is a skilfully made film that forces viewers to question their assumptions about the drug┬átrade and its conflicts between drug gangs and the police in Rio. By not taking an obvious stand for or against the police, Padilha draws viewers into the BOPE operations and lets them decide for themselves the extent of the corruption that exists there. No-one comes out of the showdown between the BOPE members and Baiano’s side with moral integrity intact and everybody, from the dealers and the students through the police to their superiors and their political contacts, emerges compromised in an ongoing path of social decay. Stomach-churning violence aside, there are very brief moments of black humour (such as Neto’s tattooing) and subtle commentary on the similarities between the BOPE culture and the behaviour of gangs generally in a winding plot. This may require at least one repeat viewing for some people to understand and appreciate fully.