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With: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Jose Lewgoy
Written by: Leonard Schrader, based on a novel by Manuel Puig
Directed by: Hector Babenco
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120
Date: 05/13/1985

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Web of Deceit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I have not read the novel by Manuel Puig that inspired Kiss of the Spider Woman, but everyone who has says that the movie misses the depth of the book. I can only nod and say, yes, the movie doesn't seem as deep as it could be. Yet the film, directed by Hector Babenco (Pixote, Ironweed), still succeeds beyond all the trappings it sets up for itself and becomes an accomplished picture as a result.

The bulk of the film takes place on one set, a prison cell in South America. I've thankfully never been in a prison cell myself, but compared to other prison movies, this cell looks relatively comfy. The two men have plenty of room to walk around, and, more importantly, Babenco's camera has room to move about as well.

We meet Luis Molina (William Hurt), a soft-hearted femme homosexual, and his cellmate Valentin Arregui (the late Raul Julia), a bearded, iron-fisted revolutionary. Their arguments begin simply; Valentin understands how the world works and longs to change it while Molina would rather escape and not worry about bad things. Babenco places the actors and camera the way a clever stage director would, making sure their physical positions represent their emotional positions.

Even so, this setup would grow tiresome quickly if not for Molina's stories. He loves to tell Valentin about movies he's seen, and the film wisely shows us black-and-white "clips" from these movies (Sonia Braga appears as the star). After a time, Valentin realizes that the first film Molina describes was a Nazi propaganda film, though Molina never paid any attention to that part. This only deepens their rift; Molina insists that he still enjoys the memory of his movie. It helps him escape.

Eventually, the two men grow fond of one another, which complicates the fact that the prison's warden has put them together for a specific reason (which I won't go into for those who haven't seen the film). This leads to the two men "trading roles" for a night, followed by Molina's release and his making a decision that alters his life. Meanwhile, Valentin himself actually appears in Molina's latest movie.

The final portion of the film with the two characters separated doesn't quite stick: Hurt doesn't have much dialogue and doesn't seem to know what to do without it. The strength of the movie lies in its acting, and specifically in the chemistry between the two leads. Hurt, who has gone on to be one of the most monotone and overly proper actors in cinema history, really cuts loose here and experiments with the womanly side of himself. While Julia, who often got stuck in silly character roles, exerts a leading-man presence full of passion and fire. Politics led to Hurt's winning the Oscar to the exclusion of even a nomination for Julia ("isn't he brave? A straight man playing a gay man!").

Kiss of the Spider Woman does occupy some significant historical spot though, as perhaps the first gay movie to be recognized and celebrated by the mainstream media. But, as the queer movie review site asks, do we really need another movie about a gay man whose straight object of desire takes pity and gives him a mercy bonk? If you want to see at least one movie about grown-ups this summer, we do.

DVD Details: City Lights Home Entertainment released a two-disc DVD set in 2008. The main feature comes in original mono or in new 5.1 stereo (as well as optional dubbed French and Spanish tracks). There's a trivia track (English or Spanish) and optional subtitles. On disc two, we get a feature-length, making-of documentary (109 minutes), as well as three other, short documentaries. We also get photo galleries, trailers, excerpts from 1985 reviews (including Siskel, Ebert and my friend Judy Stone's).

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