Politics are not only social. They can be personal, or professional. They can encompass our entire life, or play a very tiny, very unimportant part in same. The inherent meaning of the term indicates a type of gamesmanship, a give and take that operates on skill, strategy, and individual sympathies. While we tend to view the opposing ideologies in terms of pro or con, black or white, the truth is far more gray. As a reflection of who we are, politics can be problematic. As an indication of who we may become, they are often precognitive and sentient. In Hector Babenco’s brilliant 1985 drama, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the concept of individual belief runs head on into the state controlled notion of control and conformity. For the two prisoners sharing a dingy Brazilian jail cell, their own principles will come to comfort them. They may also destroy everything they are.
Valentin Arregui is a political prisoner in his native land, a man marked by the government for his subversive views and violent radicalism. His cellmate suffers from a different form of persecution. As an effete homosexual, Luis Molina has been incarcerated on ‘morals charges’. As a means of escape, he makes up elaborate fantasies about fancy, fake motion pictures. One revolves around Nazis and spies. The other centers on the Spider Woman, and her wicked affections. As the tension between the two lessen, Valentin opens up about his life. Luis also begins to entrust his newfound friend. Naturally, the authorities are doing whatever they can to get their prisoners to break - and someone may have loyalties outside their own claimed convictions.
The history of Kiss of the Spider Woman is an interesting one, and the subject of several interesting featurettes on the recently released two disc DVD version of the film, now available from City Lights Home Entertainment. Since it deals with subjects both inherently cinematic (the movies) and impossible to perfectly convey (human emotion and sexuality), it must walk a fine line between the outrageous and the insular, the unknowable and the honest and obvious. It helps that director Babenco hired two amazing actors, both of whom were relatively unheralded at the time, to bring his vision to life. It’s safe to say that Spider Woman elevated the professional profile of both Raul Julia (Valentin) and William Hurt (Luis). The former was still a journeyman talent when this minor movie came along. The latter went on to win an Oscar for his work in the film, a clever combination of gay bravura and hidden pain. While Julia carries the film’s social heart, Hurt opens up the entire narrative’s bruised and battered soul.
As a novel, the 1976 work by Manuel Puig was considered ‘un-filmable’, based on the fact that the non-traditional narrative was told completely in dialogue form. While it was later adapted into a play for both stage and radio, the material appeared perfectly suited for the mind’s eye alone. And yet in one of the DVD’s added features, we learn about Puig, about his own thoughts on the book, and how Babenco managed to bring the material to life. Elsewhere, we see another unusual transformation in Spider Woman‘s legacy. Famed Broadway composers John Kander and Frank Ebb turned the tale into a musical, perhaps one of most unusual to ever hit the Great White Way. Another documentary explains the arduous task of modifying an already complex concept into a song and dance extravaganza (one that won several Tonys, by the way). In addition, there is a trivia track, a look at the role of “submissive women” in the movie, and some standard backstage overview.
But it’s the movie that remains timeless. Kiss of the Spider Woman in one of the few films that understands the communal horror and ubiquity of persecution. It plays with our sympathies only to challenge and cherry-pick them later on. There are secrets and symbols strewn throughout the two hour running time, with an additional allotment of unanswered and ambiguous turns along the way. Babenco gets lots of mileage out of the film-within-a-film ideal, as well as utilizing flashbacks to fill in necessary blanks. While it never takes away from its two character conceits, Kiss of the Spider Woman is much more than just a couple of prisoners talking. It illustrates the notion of how humans strive for dignity, and that even in the most oppressive of environments, caring and compassion can break down barriers.
Of course, some two decades-plus on, the homosexual undercurrent feels very dated indeed. Any indication of man-to-man affection is kept completely offscreen and seems dismissed quickly and compactly. Hurt could even be accused of stereotyping Luis, or making him more of a swishy, fey foil than he really is or needs to be. Of course, such an interpretation falls in line with Puig’s take on such gender realities, and the actor’s amazing mannerisms help transcend anything remotely offensive. Of course, the DVD exposes the huge onset arguments Babenco had with his lead, conflicts that apparently added as much to the performance as any high minded Method-ology. Similarly, it’s important not to underestimate Julia’s importance to the film. If Kiss of the Spider Woman were all about Luis and his love of extravagance, we’d grow bored very quickly. Instead, Valentin reminds us of the sacrifice some are willing to endure to stand by their beliefs.
There are unanswered questions, though, elements of Kiss of the Spider Woman that tend to make sense only to itself. The two narratives spun by Luis - the noir-ish thriller Her Real Glory and the oddball b-movie macabre - tend to be more disconnected than reflective of any real theme. In some ways, the bright and shiny scope infused in these fake offerings may stand as nothing more than a way of avoiding the darkness of prison. Additionally, the ending will appear overly grim to some, especially when viewed through our post-millennial mandate of justice and cinematic fairness for all. But that’s one of the great things about Kiss of the Spider Woman. It doesn’t want to deliver the standard ‘feel good’ sentiment. Instead, it wants its audience to understand the hurt and inequity, to realize that, sometimes, the bad get rewarded and the good get far too much punishment. But that’s the way things work in the world. And like the formation of the strangest of bedfellows, that’s part of the foundation of politics as well.