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.

 

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