This review was originally written for Blueprint: Review.
In a prison in Brazil, two cellmates – cross-dressing homosexual Luis Molina (William Hurt) and aggressive political prisoner Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) – form an unlikely friendship as Luis recounts one of his favourite films to pass the time.
Just by the premise, Kiss of the Spider Woman doesn’t sound very appealing, watching two prisoners from different walks of life gradually grow to accept one another interspersed with excerpts from a film one of them is describing to the other, but there’s a great deal more to it than that. For starters, William Hurt is fantastic. Just amazing. He is an actor I’ve often disregarded from having only seen him in largely traditional white-bread roles like Broadcast News, Lost in Space, The Incredible Hulk and The Big Chill, but clearly he is an actor who deserves more of my attention. His role as Luis is unlike anything I’ve seen him in before, and justifiably won him an Academy Award. He carries himself here with a brittle confidence, clear that he’s comfortable with himself and how others see him, but is also trying to not aggravate others because of how he appears. His portrayal of a homosexual never feels insulting or offensive, yet his effeminacy is clear. Raul Julia is also good as the more suppressed, angrier inmate, but he gets less to do than Hurt, having to spend most of his time in pain from the torturing and poison he is being given as part of his imprisonment.
Much of the film takes place within the restricted confines of the cell, developing the relationship between these two men but, just as I began to tire of the limitations, plot developments drop in to add some much-welcomed momentum to the story. It’s almost a film of two halves, building up the bond to begin with, then showing the effect it has had on these two men as the outside world imposes upon their inside lives, and it’s extremely well handled. Similarly the depiction of the film Hurt’s Luis is describing is very well done too. In comparison to the “real” world in the cell, the film is shown with broader acting and characters, and deliberate plotting and staging. This is partly due to the type of film – a German wartime propaganda piece – and also because it’s Luis’ recollection being told to Valentin, so much will get lost in the re-telling. The beauty of Hurt’s performance really comes through as he narrated these segments, often making the film-within-a-film sound more enticing than it is depicted visually on screen.
The real pleasure comes from just watching these two great actors working together in the harsh prison environment. There’s a definite bond between them, shown no greater than the single-take scene of Luis stripping and cleaning Valentin for reasons I won’t disclose. It’s a touching act of compassion that proves to be the inciting incident between the two. Alas, the audio quality on the Blu-Ray doesn’t match up to the quality of the film. It may have just been my speaker set-up, but a great deal of the dialogue sounded badly re-recorded, and didn’t seem to fit the environment on screen. Everything else about the Blu-Ray transfer was more than acceptable, but the dodgy dialogue occasionally took me out of the film.
Choose Film 8/10