Kiss of the Amazing 'Spider Woman'
On March 12, the American Studies program hosted a film screening of the 1985 Hector Babenco film “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” The program borrowed the 35-mm film from the Library of Congress and was brought to us by its Academy Award-nominated producer, David Weisman, and his brother, Sam Weisman. It was screened for Planet Hollywood: American Cinema in Global Perspective, taught by Prof. Thomas Doherty (AMST), but was open to all students.
The film centers around two prisoners in a cell in Latin America. One, Molina, is a gay man, and the other, Valentin, is a political prisoner. They are played by William Hurt and Raul Julia, respectively. The former is caring and hopeful, while the latter is gruff and cynical. One might think of it as a dark “Odd Couple.” Hurt’s Molina regales Julia’s Valentin with two fake movies to pass the time while surviving their prison sentences and discussing their lives on the outside.
“Spider Woman” is a uniquely directed film. Babenco chose to adapt the novel of the same name using long, carefully detailed shots. The film opens with a tracking shot of the cell made to look like home, narrated by Hurt. The cell is draped in large blankets, pictures hang on the wall, and a small kettle on the side boils water for tea. We can hear Hurt’s narration before the camera pans to him. Despite the film taking place mostly in the small room, Babenco does a great job of showing rather than telling.
This is, in part, a credit to the outstanding performances by Julia and Hurt (who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role). Their portrayals of the two completely different men coming to understand each other show that unselfish love and care can transcend sexual preference. Their story is one of dependence, deception and the sacrifices made for love. Julia and Hurt have some of the best on-screen chemistry ever portrayed on film. Though unconventional, especially for its time, their bond is one neither would ever trade away.
As I left, I realized that it was probably one of the better iterations of a gay relationship in film — up there with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonlight.” The two leads had a presence and believable bond that I wish Elio and Oliver had had in “Call Me by Your Name.” The recent Oscar winner, though a beautifully made movie from a filmmaking perspective, featured a relationship that came off as nothing more than lustful, seductive rather than magnetic. The two were not drawn together by pure interest for each other’s well-being, unlike Molina and Valentin in “Spider Woman.” Compared to them, Elio and Oliver barely had substance in their relationship.
All of these great aspects are reasons why “Kiss of a Spider Woman” was a nominee for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay and won Best Actor in the 1986 Academy Awards. It’s an underrated drama that deserves some time in the spotlight for supporting homosexuality, transcending gender stereotypes, and portraying what it really means to feel free and happy.
One gripe I have with the film, however, is the editing. There are some moments that drag and some that don’t quite fit with the story. Molina’s discussion of the fake films he saw incorporates important thematic parallels, but ultimately feels unevenly presented throughout “Spider Woman.” Due to their thematic significance, Babenco cut back to them as naturally as he could, but the transitions often feel forced. The production quality of the flashbacks to said films was not very good, though it may have been an intentional choice to distinguish the two – either way, it was distracting. I’d go into detail as to what specifically bothered me about the films within the film, but that would give away certain plot points.
My least favorite part of “Spider Woman” was the ending. There were a few poignant instances here and there that were split apart by last-minute scenes that seemed to be from a political thriller film. I wish we could have stayed more in the moment, allowing the emotional heft to resonate. Yet the ending felt both rushed and 15 minutes too long. There’s a clear point that the film crosses that could have naturally ended the story, but unfortunately the film continued. I would give “Kiss of a Spider Woman” a B+. Some dialogue may feel dated, but there are timeless and important messages found within the lines that deserve some recognition.