Kiss of the Spider Woman is an enigma of a film for me, in that I’m really unsure of what to say about it. It’s not really a film that can be condensed into a few keywords to describe it; there’s a lot going on in this film, and definitely not just on the surface level. Sure, there’s a plot, and it’s a relatively straightforward one to follow, but the plot itself meanders through genre after genre and storytelling method after method that it defies a simplistic explanation of itself. I will say this, though; having seen it once before a few years ago and largely forgetting it after I had, this second viewing stayed with me a lot better, though I don’t think I can guarantee myself that most of it probably won’t bleed into obscurity in my head after another year or two.
Valentin Arregui is a political prisoner in a Brazilian jail house, who is interrogated and tortured for being a part of a revolutionary group. His cellmate, Luis Molina, is a homosexual who is imprisoned for having sex with a minor. The film centers on the ever-evolving relationship between the two men as they share a jail cell together, as Molina comforts Arregui by regaling an account of a Nazi propaganda film he appreciates for the central romance, and Arregui grows increasingly trusting of his newfound friend… which may just be exactly what Molina wants. It’s hard to really talk about this film without starting at the most logical starting point: the performances. Raul Julia plays Arregui, and his performance is largely a good one, but it is William Hurt as the effeminate and nurturing Molina that steals the show. Arregui is arguably the protagonist, but it is thanks solely to Hurt that the resulting film centers squarely on Molina, and Hurt would go on to win not only the Academy Award for Best Actor, but the Best Male Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival as well, making him one of the exceedingly rare performers to win both of these awards. The technicals are fairly good, though the music does get a little too 80s near the end of the film for my taste. But if anything can take away even a little from Hurt’s performance, it is the story itself. I won’t spoil anything for first-time viewers, but the film does do an excellent job of incorporating multiple angles of the plot into a cohesive whole. Part romance film, part character study, part political thriller; this is a film that has a heck of a lot to offer in such a relatively small package, without including too much of various things and not melding them together just to tick off checkboxes.
Though the film is in English, the filmmakers (including director Hector Babenco) were mostly Brazilian, but that wouldn’t stop this one from getting a few of the big Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. I’ve seen a few reviews and critics that make the argument that this would be a much more apropos Best Picture winner in hindsight than actual winner Out of Africa, which I haven’t seen yet, so I can’t make that judgment myself. Still, even only having seen this one a second time, I have a good feeling I’ll end up remembering this one a little better than its rival film. Even though I can’t really come up with too many solid reasons for you to go out and see this one (Hurt’s performance being just the most obvious one), you should still try and see it if you get the chance. It certainly deserves its spot on the list more than a fair number of other films I could name, and it’s pretty entertaining to boot.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10