Program Notes: Kiss of the Spider Woman
“If Busby Berkeley had ever made a movie about politics and illusion, it might have come out something like this infectious, sobering film”.
-Richard Schickel, Time magazine, August 5, 1985
The Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles is pleased to present Kiss of the Spider Woman, the first of three American films directed by Hector Babenco (1946-2016). Born in Argentina, in an immigrant family of Jewish Ukranian and Polish roots, Babenco grew up in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, dropped out of high school, then moved to Spain where he worked as an extra in Spaghetti westerns and other US-production shot in and around Madrid. He settled in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1969, where he worked on shorts, commercials and a handful of documentaries. He directed his first feature King of the Night in 1975 and two years later the crime film Lucio Flavio, Passenger of Agony (1977), a controversial portrait of a real-life bank robber, a huge box office success. The international critical acclaim of his next film Pixote, a heartbreaking documentary-style look at the desperate lives of homeless children in Sao Paulo, brought him international success. This led to three directing opportunities in Hollywood: Kiss of the Spider Woman, in 1985, Ironweed (1987), with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), shot in Brazil like Kiss of the Spider Woman. His last major film, before his untimely death of a heart attack in Sao Paulo, is the memorable prison drama Carandiru (2003).
For his U.S. debut, Kiss of the Spider Woman/O beijo da mulher aranha, Babenco adapted the homonymous book by Argentine writer Manuel Puig, an experimental novel published in Spain in 1976. As noted by Barbara Fulks, Puig’s work deals with the “ “polemical nature of the relationship between sexuality and revolutionary politics. The conflict between power and sex, and their functions in society”. The novel’s protagonists, Valentín Arregui Paz, a leftist political prisoner, and Luis Alberto Molina, a flamboyant homosexual, share a cell in a South American prison; they embody extreme perceptions of different realities. Through the retelling by Molina of embellished film plots, and various narrative twists, the relationship moves into sexual and political territories that made the novel a publishing success.
Adapted by Leonard Schrader, the screenwriter brother of Paul Schrader, the film shed most of the original’s self-reflexivity to concentrate on the verbal and visual clash of Raul Julia as the virile political radical Valentín and William Hurt as the effeminate storyteller with hidden intentions, who casts a celluloid web with three very different film plots, starring Brazilian 2 beauty Sonia Braga, in order to make the revolutionary answer a question about the place of pleasure and imagination in life: “What kind of a cause is that, a cause that won’t let you eat an avocado?”.
These three exaggerated melodramas tinged with noir elements cleverly provide refracted images of the main plot, and the last one’s schmaltzy climax stands in for Valentín and Molina’s separate tragic endings. As the protagonist of all three plots, Sonia Braga, the Spider Woman of the last pulpy movie fiction, embodies Molina’s seduction strategy, and, ultimately, makes splendidly visual Manuel Puig’s own discourse about the workings of literary fictions as webs of enchantment.
The film received Academy award nominations for best picture and director, and Oscar to William Hurt for best actor. Hector Babenco was the first Latin American director to receive a nomination. Twenty five years later, Mexico would step into the plate with the wins of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro for Gravity (2013) Birdman (2014), The Revenant (2015) and The Shape of Water (2017).
Tangled Web: Making “Kiss of the Spider Woman”(2008). Documentary video directed by David Weisman. Included in Disc 2, 2008 DVD release of the film by City Lights Pictures, Independent Cinema Restorative Archive.
Fulks, Barbara P. "Kiss of the Spider Woman (El Beso de la Mujer Araña). Novel by Manuel Puig, 1976." Reference Guide to World Literature. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 3rd ed. Vol. 2: Works. Detroit: St. James Press, 2003, 1341.
Keller, Gary D. "The Works of Hispanic Directors in Hollywood." Hispanic American Almanac: A Reference Work on Hispanics in the United States. Ed. Sonia Benson. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Schickel, Richard. Kiss of the Spider Woman, Time magazine, August 5, 1985.
Simon, John. “Tangled web”. National Review, September 6, 1985.