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“A fag and a commie in a jail cell”—so a studio memo described Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), a “marketing nightmare.” Rejected by Hollywood, Argentinian-born Brazilian director Hector Babenco found independent financing for this florid adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel, set in an unidentified Latin American country. William Hurt plays Molina, a gay window dresser serving time for corrupting a minor; Raul Julia is his cellmate, Valentin, a political prisoner who undergoes interrogation and torture. Their grim circumstances call for diversion: When their morale sinks, Molina recounts the plot of a 1940s melodrama, unfurling as he tells it in gently tinted vintage color, about a patriotic French chanteuse (Sonia Braga) who falls in love with a Nazi officer.
Hurt’s touching performance won him both Best Actor at Cannes and an Oscar, and the film received four Academy Award nominations. Today, though, it appears strangely dated, and its unspecified location seems existentially hokey. Hurt’s flaming queen belongs to another era, as does Julia’s bearded revolutionary, whose sloganeering (“What life offers me is the struggle”) is particularly grating. Still, the film gradually gathers weight and momentum as the complexity of Puig’s vision unfolds. Pleasure and compassion are unmasked as enemies of both the state and the revolution. These two characters, the sexual and the political deviant, need their unlikely alliance more than either of them knows. It offers them a fragile protection; alone, they’re captives to brutal reality or pure illusion.