Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)


If there is one thing we've discovered over our far too frequently violent and tragic global history it's that human beings are resilient creatures. Equally capable of conducting acts of the most astounding cruelty or ones that are the most selflessly compassionate-- the human race has managed to withstand some truly unspeakable events carried out by their fellow man. "What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger," has become not just a cliche but an oft-cited justification that helps us cope, similar to the athlete's chant of "no pain, no gain," or the argument that tragedy builds character.

While some cling to faith and others to memories, no matter what form comprises the coping mechanism of any individual, the bottom line is that although history has found us tortured and enslaved, our saving grace has been in the limitless potential of the human mind. Simply put, you can't handcuff one's thoughts, chain someone's dreams, lock up their hopes, or torture their memory.

In the Oscar winning film Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni uses his penchant for creativity to try and hide the horrors of the Holocaust from his son as they spend their days in a labor camp and likewise, in director Hector Babenco's landmark 1985 independent classic, Kiss of the Spider Woman, William Hurt's character, Molina escapes from his imprisonment in an unspecified Latin American country by recalling the plots of old movies. In the beginning of the film, based on Manuel Puig's novel and adapted by screenwriter Leonard Schrader (the brother of fellow writer/director Paul Schrader), we're introduced to the effeminate Molina as he begins chronicling the story of "the most ravishing woman in the world" who kept men at a distance no matter how lonely she'd get.

Shortly after Hurt begins the opening monologue of his Oscar winning role, we realize that instead of seeing the man on a stage--which feels like it would be far more natural-- Molina is sharing a cell with fellow prisoner, Valentin (Raul Julia). Although Molina has been locked up for corrupting a minor in a homosexual affair, Valentin is a political prisoner who fears for his girlfriend living life on the outside as a part of the underground movement hoping to overthrow the corrupt government that's tortured, vanished, and murdered so many of his fellow citizens.

While at first, the macho Valentin and the gay former department store window dresser Molina struggle to get along with Valentin rudely growing annoyed with Molina's unceasing storytelling of old film plots. However, soon he begins to depend on them to pass the time. Although he advises his cell-mate not to include erotic descriptions of naked women or conversations about food, given his inability to access either, soon Julia's Valentin becomes engrossed in the tale, imagining the story by picturing his own true love, played by Sonia Braga in Molina's narrativse.

The first independent film to receive the top four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, Kiss of the Spider Woman finally makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut in a gorgeous 2-disc transfer from City Lights Home Entertainment on 10/21/08.

A passionate celebration of humanity, tolerance, and the fight for survival, it pulls the viewer in a number of directions one wouldn't see coming. While it begins as a near chamber piece centering solely on the two men whom we quickly realize will eventually learn to appreciate one another, it moves into surprising terrain roughly midway through upon discovering a new plot twist that changes everything that has come before it.

As the men begin to have such a profound effect on one another, we realize that they may be exchanging characteristics as well as Valentin's bravery and devotion to something bigger begin to influence Molina and likewise, Molina's sensitivity, compassion and tendency to want to escape mentally begin to find their way into Valentin's psyche.

Although it's become one of the most highly regarded works of its time and seems impossible to consider anything to the contrary, further research revealed that originally the two men had been cast in each other's roles but during the rehearsals for the film, they experimented with playing the opposite part, discovering that they truly belonged in the roles they hadn't been given. Reportedly working for just the price of their air tickets and Brazilian hotel bills during the Sao Paulo shoot, the two men and Sonia Braga (who had to recite her lines phonetically as she was unfamiliar with the English language) crafted a true independent classic that, despite being dubbed "as a gay Casablanca" by The San Francisco Chronicle helped spawn a successful Broadway show and continues to reach fans across the world in book, cinematic, play and musical form.

Additionally including the "never-before-seen" feature length documentary Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman on the second disc of the DVD set, it also offers a mini-documentary with original author Manuel Puig, a featurette on the Broadway adaptation, over 150 images in a DVD photo gallery and a "Slide Show Commentary: Transition from Novel to Film," the loaded set is a must for fans looking to explore the film again from a variety of different insider's perspectives in a stunningly beautiful digital transfer.

And as Chronicle writer Bob Graham noted, "people who see the film will realize, along with Valentin, that they like being told stories," however, when it comes to Hurt and Julia's masterful web, they'll realize that this is a story that is impossible to predict and must be witnessed firsthand to appreciate, as this reviewer did, taking in the movie for the first time.