Picked Flick #42: Kiss of the Spider Woman
And so Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film in which I had recognized glimmers of myself with such early and total astonishment, stunned me just as much by calling out my naïvetés and myopiasnot from some new or rejected frontier of knowledge, where I was used to being shocked or upbraided by life, but from an already treasured and intimate object. It's no mystery to me how Babenco's film sets this sort of trap, at least for a certain kind of viewer. Where the early sequences are lusciously cinephiliac, with their mocking but affectionate recreations of dubious melodramas, and their willowy transitions from that universe of screen memory to the clammy, witty, and exciting reality of the jail cell, the later sequences assert their politics more forthrightly, with the hard lighting, strained faces, and tightened editing of other Latin American political dramas, like Luis Puenzo's The Official Story or Babenco's own magnificent Pixote. Fans who take Molina's epicurean escapism at nearly face value, as I did, are likely to feel like the second hour sells them out. The seductions of John Neschling's music or Patricio Bisso's versatile costuming don't evaporate as the film reaches its grave climax, but they shape-shift in a way that requires a full immersion in every side of what Babenco, working from Puig's ingenious template, has constructed up to that point. Almost by definition, the movie divides its sympathetic audience of marginalized liberals, forcing them to recombine by movie's end in a richer, more expansive spirit of solidarity: quite literally, and purposefully, less fabulous than the earlier chapters. It's a hugely ambitious journey that the movie takes, with impressive if erratic artistry. Nothing in the movie, not the acting or the editing or the camerawork or the story structure, is immune to miscalculation here or there, but Kiss also achieves substantial, flavorful successes in each of these areas. Best of all, because it is subtle and intelligent in raising questions about storytelling, spectatorship, sympathy, borderzones, clichés, stereotypes, and sexual politicsterrains where a great many movies start bonking you over the head, or else just flee in all the wrong directionsKiss of the Spider Woman consistently surpasses its own flaws, challenges your own sureties, turning them all into productive questions rather than simple blemishes.
Kiss of the Spider Woman debuted the same year as The Purple Rose of Cairo, just a few rungs down on this list. Both movies understand and reward the unique devotions and pleasures of the passionate moviegoer, even as they dissect such devotion with an often uncomfortable accuracy. I learned even more from Kiss, and I feel even closer to it, because its range of themes and arguments is a little broader, and it humbled me from ever assuming that I've got any movie fully pinned down, no matter how much I love it or how many times I've seen it. Several of the film's pleasures are "simple": Sonia Braga is exceptional, Hurt and Julia have terrific moments, the screenplay's twists are truly surprising, and the whole movie looks and sounds great (especially for its low budget). It's a medicine wrapped in a morality lesson baked into a succulent dessert. When the damned thing ever finally arrives on DVD, we'll all have cause to celebrate. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1985 HB Filmes/Island Alive.