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September 8, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Underappreciated Gems | September 8, 2008 |

It seems strange to call a movie that starred an actor that won an Academy Award and was nominated for another three “Underappreciated.” Yet take a straw poll of your friends, co-workers, and family members, and I suspect you’ll find that few of them have seen 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. This is, without question, something that needs correcting immediately. It is full of breathtaking grace and harsh realities, containing lush, gorgeous dreamscapes and dark visions of fascism and betrayal — all juxtaposed with stories of love and loss. It is a study in beauty and ugliness, a story about love, remorse, romance, revolution, politics, treachery and redemption.

Directed by Hector Babenco (At Play in the Fields of the Lord), Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on the novel El beso de la mujer arañ by Manuel Puig (who also wrote the stage play). It is, at its heart, about two men: Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) and Luis Molina (William Hurt), men from completely opposite ends of every conceivable spectrum who find themselves sharing the same Brazilian prison cell. Valentin is a revolutionary, a political prisoner, unkempt, hardened and unyielding in his philosophy and his dedication to his cause, imprisoned for his beliefs. Molina is a fragile, effete gay man, imprisoned for having sex with a minor. The story revolves around these two very different men trapped and forced to learn about each other’s lives. In addition, there exist interwoven stories within the story — stories, both fictional and real, that they tell each other to pass the time. Molina is obsessed with a film called Her Real Glory, a Nazi propagandist film about a dashing lieutenant named Werner who falls in love with a club singer who is also a member of the French resistance. Molina will also tell the tale of the Spider Woman, a strange woman trapped on an island paradise. Additionally, both of them eventually tell the stories of their lives and how they came to be here. They are all devices used by the men to pass the time in this dreary, grim existence that they have been sentenced to.

Each of these stories is told through flashbacks — Molina narrates Her Real Glory as a means of passing the time, even though it frequently enrages Valentin, who becomes irate over his lack of outrage over the film’s fascistic content and Nazi sympathies. Yet Molina has no interest in politics; he is instead riveted by the romance within the film, the star-crossed lovers and the trials and tragedies that befall them. The story of the Spider Woman is a quickie, something he makes up on the spot to distract Valentin when he falls ill. The most remarkable thing about these two fictional flashbacks (as well as Valentin’s tale) is that all three star Sonia Braga (The Milagro Beanfield War) in the various female leads.

Finally, there is a more sinister subplot — not only is Valentin being routinely tortured, but it becomes clear over time that the prison wardens and the powers that be are slowly poisoning him, a bit of unpleasantness compounded by the possibility that Molina is not quite what he appears to be. Yet despite this, when Valentin becomes sick, and is forced to display a level of vulnerability that absolutely mortifies him, Molina tends to him with kindness and gentleness. It is one of the pivotal scenes in the film, demonstrating the changing perceptions each man has of the other.

This idea of changing perceptions is one of the cornerstones of Kiss of the Spider Woman. From the very beginning, Valentin has nothing but contempt and disgust for Molina — not necessarily due to his homosexuality, but more due to his perceiving the flamboyant, cross-dressing inmate as weak, and even worse to him, lacking in any sort of convictions. For a hardened, fanatical firebrand such as Valentin, Molina represents the ultimate act of ignorance — his obsession with the blatantly fascist propaganda of Her Real Glory infuriates him endlessly. At the same time, Molina is cut from wholly different cloth — a sensitive pacifist overall, he detests the ugliness in the world, instead he chose to flit his days away carousing with friends and obsessing over men he cannot have. Molina is a gentle soul, a fragile, lovelorn societal castoff who wants nothing more than to find his storybook romance. His vision of love is as fantastical as the film he narrates — he craves that melodramatic vision of passionate embraces, smoldering looks and dramatic proclamations of love. His character borders on the pathetic at times, yet he is so desperate, so clearly lonely and lost in the world, that one can’t help feel sympathy for him.

Despite these glaring, fundamental cultural and philosophical differences, each man changes as they learn more about each other. Herein lies the true beauty of the performances in Kiss of the Spider Woman — the idea is telegraphed from the beginning — two different men will learn about each other and themselves. Yet rarely is a relationship between two people, regardless of orientation, gender, or ethnicity, as genuine as it is here, nor are you likely to see two characters as vulnerable as these. Both actors are magnificent, no question. But William Hurt’s portrayal of Molina is stunning (all the more revelatory considering the last time I saw him was as General Thunderbolt Ross in The Incredible Hulk). He is imbued with such delicate grace and naive sensitivity that you completely forget who the actor is, and instead are simply allowed to concentrate on the character. Easily one of the more well-deserved Oscars, every movement, mannerism, every word uttered is fully realized and without affect. He is played with a combination of wide-eyed naiveté and deliberate sensuousness that makes it the perfect foil for Julia. From the very first scene, when Molina begins the tale of Her Real Glory by floating around the cell in a silk robe and towel wrapped about his head, you are awed by his performance. Despite playing on numerous stereotypes, neither the role nor the performance never seem derivative or hackneyed. Raul Julia slides into the role of Valentin with similar ease — his portrayal is as fierce and gritty as Hurt’s is soft and subtle. Considering that easily 90 percent of the film is simply the two of them in a bleak prison cell, the believability of their evolving relationship is vital to the film’s success. This believability, this genuineness, is what makes the moment of dénouement all the more riveting and touching.

Their antagonistic bickering is slowly interspersed with moments of tenderness and vulnerability, as they slowly have their conventions and ideologies stripped away simply through watching each other and listening to their respective stories, true or not. Thus, the stories they tell are as vital to their development as their moments together. Each story within the film grants the viewer greater insight into the unguarded heart of the character, exposing their weaknesses and helping to realize their strengths. The ancillary characters are almost completely outshone by the development and evolution of the two main roles — except for Sonia Braga, who is luminous and remarkable in all three of her roles. Braga fills an interesting role, symbolizing something that both men desire in each of their roles — Molina simply wants love and romance in his life, as evidenced by her melodramatic and soap opera-esque performance in Her Real Glory, while she also plays the jilted lover that Valentin regrets letting go in his flashback. She is completely different and equally enchanting in each part, lending an element of fantasy to their drab, grim imprisonment.

For those keeping track, Kiss of the Spider Woman has been a novel, a play, a musical, and a motion picture. While I must guiltily admit that I have only seen the film, I can say that it is a work of uncommon beauty that is endlessly fascinating. Hector Babenco crafted a stirring portrayal of two men who are changed forever, set against the backdrop of romance and fascism, revolution and redemption. It allows the viewer to be submerged into multiple worlds, with each one leading us to greater understanding of the real world of Molina and Valentin. It takes the time and place of its setting, adds characters with true depth and emotional complexity, and creates a film that is moving without being sentimental, and tragic without being manipulative. Rare if the film that accomplishes these things, so by all means track down Kiss of the Spider Woman and explore the worlds it creates.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Underappreciated Gems | September 8, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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