Beautiful dreamers

Idealism and fantasy meet behind bars.


directed by Hector Babenco with Raul Julia, William Hurt, and Sonia Braga runs July 27-August 2 at Varsity

THE GLORIOUS NEW print of Kiss of the Spider Woman doesn't celebrate an anniversary or added footage; it's still director Hector Babenco's original 1985 cut. Instead, this rerelease is simply a damn good idea whose time has more than come. What's arresting, as well as poignant, is how timeless Spider Woman has turned out to be.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch hasn't obliterated the movie or made it seem quaint. In its reflection of Latin American attitudes toward homosexuality, Spider Woman is the perfect companion piece to last year's Before Night Falls; there's no appreciable difference between Night's Castro-era Cuba and the world that Brazilian author Manuel Puig created in his 1976 novel, adapted here by Leonard Schrader. (Latin attitudes? Try international.)

The ascending duet between Raul Julia, as a political prisoner in an unnamed Latin American country, and William Hurt, as his gay, orange-haired cellmate, has rarely been equaled and seldom approached. It was Hurt who walked away with the diva's share of honors, which began at Cannes and tumbled on through the Academy Awards, yet he and Julia are an even-handed team. Perhaps that's what's changed. Perhaps we're so much more used to homosexuality onscreen that we can finally focus on Julia's work—separate from Hurt's incandescence—and savor the full richness of its range.

The film's prison setting is no restriction; like Hurt's Molina, Spider Woman takes flight again and again as he croons the plots of his beloved black-and-white '40s movies. He tells them to escape his cell, and where he goes, we go, too—into a Nazi propaganda melodrama about "a cabaret artist of the highest rank" (Sonia Braga, in one of her multiple roles) or into the lair of the Spider Woman herself.

Molina's flights from reality initially disgust his Marxist cellmate, Valentin (Julia), who already bears the marks of torture. Even more, he condemns Molina for a life as trivial as his movies. But as the two men move warily around each other (one with his own heavy agenda), the brutality of the place brings them together.

Babenco matches Hurt's gliding, sumptuous performance with a fluid camera that floats in and out of Molina's world of B-movies, full of gallantry, romance, and death for a cause. Julia's Valentin, who knows better, travels an even greater emotional distance. Watching his work, with its infinitely subtle shifts, makes you mourn not just Julia (who died in 1994), but the climate in which this kind of bravura filmmaking flourished.

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