Judge Daryl Loomis believes this is one of the best book to screen adaptations ever made.
Something a little strange, that's what you notice, that she's not a woman like all the others.
When I saw Kiss of the Spider Woman as an impressionable young moviegoer, it was a first for me in many ways. Before that, I'd never seen a film that featured a gay lead character, let alone one a sympathetic one. It opened my eyes for the first time to some of the tense political issues in Latin America and it was the first time I'd seen the effective use of the "film-within-a-film" theme. Since then, I've seen plenty of films that feature all of this stuff. Kiss of the Spider Woman, however, with its award-winning performances and tight direction, executes these themes as well as I've ever seen.
Facts of the Case
In an unnamed Latin American nation, two men sit in a dank prison cell. Luis Moline (Hurt) is very feminine, openly gay, and has been jailed for the corruption of a minor. Across from him sits Valentin Arregui (Raúl Juliá, Street Fighter), a political prisoner, straight and macho, with an agenda. For all the torture he suffers, he stoically waits for more punishment, knowing that he'll never talk. To pass their time in this hell, Molina tells stories of some of his favorite old movies, the ones he finds magically romantic. Over time, no matter how far removed they are from each other politically and socially, they cannot help but connect in their close quarters.
Beginning with a long, beautifully effective 360-degree tracking shot, we are thrown into this cell with our heroes. As Hurt's voice intones his opening lines, taken directly from the beginning of Manuel Puig's 1978 novel, we are shown everything we need for a basic understanding of the characters. Brightly colored scarves, pictures of classic starlets on the walls, and cans of gourmet food identify Molina's flamboyance and hint at how well taken care of he is in prison. Why, we can't tell, but this contrasts directly with Juliá's Arregui. His gruff voice, bearded face, and scarred body reveal both his extreme masculinity and the days upon weeks of torture he's endured. Together, they make an oddly natural couple that, despite their numerous differences, must work together to make the best of their plight.
In relating these old movies that he loves so much, Molina doesn't merely pass the time for himself and Arregui; it allows him to feel freedom again. It's the perfect way for him to escape into his own head to make his stay more bearable. This doesn't work quite the same for Arregui, however. His thoughts, occupied so much more with action and politics than passive escapism, cannot escape these four walls. He's more interested in the new, hooded inmate across the way than the fate of some romance. No matter how involved he becomes in Molina's storytelling, he can't help but consider the political ramifications of the story and relating that to his situation. He keeps one foot in reality at all times and, as a result, helps to ground Molina's fantasies as well.
This movie that Molina tells plays out in a sepia-toned pastiche of all the sappiest elements from the cheapest of old romances. A German production entitled "Her Real Glory," it was made and takes place during the Nazi occupation of France and tells the story of Leni LaMaison (Sonia Braga, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, who also plays Arregui's real life girlfriend and the Spider Woman), a cabaret singer in Paris. She falls in love with a handsome Aryan officer, lilting and effeminate in his own way, who wines her and dines her while her countrymen are systematically slaughtered. When she realizes this, members of the French resistance approach her to use her connections to steal a map vital to the struggle. Torn between her heart and her country, she cannot have both but, because this is Molina telling the story, her choice is clear.
In Puig's difficult but great novel, Molina tells a wider range of stories but, outside of a minute or so with the titular spider woman (Braga, once again), this is the only one that the film focuses on. This film-within-a-film helps to bring the issues in the characters' reality to the forefront, encapsulating the themes while, at the same time, giving us a break from the monotony that the characters suffer all the time. Apathy versus action, entertainment versus politics, and the value of romance under duress make their way from Molina's stories into the prison cell. Arregui realizes fairly quickly that Molina's movie is pure Nazi propaganda. This realization enrages him initially because he can't believe that Molina could tell this kind of story under their circumstances. When he sees that Molina is interested only in the romance and not at all in the political implications, it enrages him further. How can Molina neither understand nor care how many scores of people the Nazis killed including, touching Molina directly, the persecution of homosexuals? All of this anger, finally, gets turned inward when he can't help but want to know how the story ends, in spite of the sickening politics. Over this time together, experiencing these emotions and discussing their ideals, both regarding the film and their reality, their minds begin to converge a little. They do not meet completely, but their acceptance and, ultimately, care for one another leads them to some very interesting common ground.
Hector Babenco (Pixote) seems, at first, like a strange choice to direct this film, but he does some of his best work here. The realism of his direction works perfectly in the prison scenes, where the claustrophobic surroundings are complimented by his signature gritty style. More surprising is the beauty in the sepia-toned imagery of Molina's film, where the style is anything but gritty realism, but he sets exactly the right tone. The impact of Kiss of the Spider Woman, however, comes from the performances. The book, written almost entirely in dialogue, is done supreme justice by Hurt and Juliá, who are completely consumed by their roles. Hurt dives head first into Molina. His voice, the diva posturing, and the rhythm with which he tells his stories are all perfect. While he is not of Latin descent, his performance makes you forget this fact and additionally brings an issue of the relative care each of the inmates get based, in part, on the color of their skin. Arregui is exactly how I want to remember the late Raúl Juliá. His performance is the perfect tribute to his strength as an actor and a personality. It sometimes seems that he plays second fiddle to Hurt because of the time Molina spends talking, but the characters are equals and opposites. The performances match each other step for step, complementing and commenting on the other on every note.
City Lights has released Kiss of the Spider Woman in an excellent two disc collection that is available exclusively through Amazon.com. The anamorphic image maintains the gritty look in the prison scenes and looks beautifully clear and bright for the "Her Real Glory" scenes. The colors are brilliant and the black levels are deep. The remixed 5.1 surround is good though, in a dialogue heavy film such as this, the front channels are the only ones that get a workout. The original mono is included as well, which sounds fine but unspectacular. The extras are great. A trivia track on disc one supplements the film in the same way as a commentary would and, on the second disc, a series of fascinating documentaries tell the troubled story of the film's production. This is a great set that does real justice to this modern classic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Hector Babenco his nearly every note perfectly, the ending of the film does not work. Without spoiling anything, the final few minutes turn into something of an action movie and it is out of pace with the rest of the film. Trying to figure out a way to dramatize the end of the novel must have been a daunting task, but the change in tone is jarring and leaves something of a bad taste in what is otherwise a beautiful film.
My only other complaint comes out of my inherent cheapness. This DVD is simply too expensive. There is good value throughout the set, but the only place to purchase it is from Amazon.com and it will be difficult for customers to lay down more than $30 for this set.
With a mostly rock-solid story and some of the best performances I've ever seen, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an absolute pleasure to watch. The two disc set is a very good tribute to a movie that changed people's perceptions of independent film and gay leading characters, opening doors for filmmakers who, before, had no outlet for their work.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: City Lights Media
• "Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman"
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