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USA 1985
Directed by
Hector Babenco
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Kiss Of The Spider Woman

Based Manuel Puig’s Latin American jail novel, Kiss Of The Spider Woman, adapted for the screen by Leonard Schrader (brother to Paul) with some involvement from Puig, this film tells the story of cellmates Molina (William Hurt), who is in jail for corrupting a minor, and Valentin (Raul Julia), who is a political prisoner. Molina entertains himself and, to some extent Valentin, by telling the story of a pro-Nazi melodrama set in Occupied Paris with a glamorous chanteuse and a devilishly handsome Nazi officer. The film cuts between the prison cell and re-creations of both the imagined Nazi movie and one of Molina's about a Spider Woman as gradually Valentin comes to appreciate Molina’s politically indifferent, seemingly superficial character.

Apparently it was a trouble production with Babenco and Hurt falling out. It became quite a hit, however, and Hurt picked up an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the star-struck ‘queen’. Whilst certainly out of character for Hurt, who makes a speciality of mild-mannered heterosexuals, the performance, although standing out against the other nominations that year including Harrison Ford for Witness and Jack Nicholson for Prizzi’s Honor, is a little too stereotypical to really be considered much of a stretch (it would have been really interesting had Burt Lancaster, who had been offered the part originally, persisted).  Indeed in many ways Raul Julia, who really was homosexual (he died of AIDS in 1995) should at least have been nominated for his performance as a heterosexual. It was also nominated for Best Picture and Direction but lost out in both categories to Sydney Pollack's much more lavish costume drama Out Of Africa

Largely a two-hander (Sonia Braga plays the glamorous chanteuse, Valentin’s former girl-friend and the Spider Woman) as far as performances go the film is quite engaging as both men gradually reveal themselves to each other, albeit unfolding without much surprise other than Molina's hidden agenda. The film becomes a little ragged in its final chapter once leaving the confines of the prison setting (Molina’s actions seem to make no sense, why did he lead the anti-rebel goons to Valentin's girl?) and though I have not read the Puig story, any political content that there might have been ends up being largely wallpaper for the relationship drama, which if somewhat sentimental in execution is worth watching for the two leads.




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