Directed by Hector Babenco
Studio: City Lights
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 119 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, 2.0 mono English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 34.98
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Review Date: August 13, 2008
Hector Babenco’s achingly sad tale of polar opposites coming to a meeting of the minds still resonates over twenty years later in Kiss of the Spider Woman. This low budget independent film was a worldwide hit and won a shelf full of awards for actor William Hurt, and this new DVD release is its initial appearance in a region one DVD format.
Two prisoners in an unnamed Latin American prison seem worlds apart in just about every imaginable way. Gay window dresser Molina ignores the ugliness of life by living in his movie fantasies. Macho Marxist revolutionary Valentin despises his frivolity and is only interested in overcoming political fascists and bringing the country back to the people. During the course of their incarceration with outside forces making their releases seem impossible, both men come to have some understanding and respect for the worlds of the other. They gradually come to know about the other’s loved ones left behind and grow to depend on each other’s kindness when illness strikes. What Valentin doesn’t know, however, is that Molina is being pressured by the prison warden and his staff to gather information unwittingly from Valentin, but as he does this, he begins to fall in love with him. So what to do: cooperate and possibly gain his freedom or play the warden and his flunkies for suckers and extend his stay with the man he loves?
Leonard Schrader’s screenplay (based on the novel by Manuel Puig) and Hector Babenco’s direction amalgamate the cloistered, dirty prison cell with the glamorous high fashion world of the two movies Molina narrates for his and Valentin’s amusement. As we get more deeply involved in these German propaganda melodramas from the 1940s, we soon begin to see an at first curious and then astonishing parallel between the alluring singer Leni Lamaison (Sonia Braga) and her Nazi paramour Werner (Herson Capri) and Molina and Valentin’s ever-growing attachment right down to the subterfuge and counter moves that are being made in the narrated film and in real life. And Babenco keeps his camera ever-moving, frightened that the central cell set will become too visually stagnant after our lengthy sojourns there. He does some slick camera maneuvers from odd angles, and in one sweeping gesture takes us from upside down to rightside up during a lengthy take. The film actually is filled with long takes, the actors almost performing as if on stage with lots of continual movement while delivering dialog as the camera circles around them.
William Hurt won his Academy Award for this performance (also the Cannes Best Actor prize, the British Academy Award, and the LA Critics prize), and it’s unlike anything else in his film resume. Molina is flighty, girly, soft, and acquiescent, quite the antithesis of the dynamic roles Hurt played in Body Heat, The Big Chill, and Gorky Park prior to this movie. It’s a performance that takes some getting used to as its slightly stylized and somewhat mannered and halting quality doesn’t make it immediately inviting to the viewer. Raul Julia’s Valentin, however, is every bit Hurt’s equal (they shared the Best Actor prize from the National Board of Review), a passionate, fiery performance that over the course of the film softens into no less passionate but more open to caring and concern. The two of them make one of cinema’s most unusual and memorable couplings, still powerful after all these years. Beside their versatility, the rest of the company seems almost an afterthought. Sonia Braga plays Leni and the Spider Woman both with a brittle quality not quite matching the storied sophistication from Molina’s descriptions of her while her real-life Marta is more down-to-earth and appealing. Nuno Leal Maia has a couple of passable scenes as Gabriel, a waiter whom Molina fancies while Jose Lewgoy as the warden and Milton Goncalves as his aide do yeoman‘s work in their parts.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer displays excellent color and more than adequate sharpness. Alas, City Lights has not cleaned up its master and thus the DVD is disappointingly rife with dirt, debris, and an occasional small scratch. Black levels aren’t top notch either, though there is certainly more than acceptable detail to be found in the shadows. The old film sequences narrated by Molina have been somewhat desaturated and browned for age, and the transfer handles these “clips” with no problems. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 new audio mix used on this release uses the music from the old film clips rather interestingly in the surrounds, but otherwise, it’s mostly a mono mix. The 2.0 mono audio track is a bit louder in volume and is the original theatrical mix which City Lights has thoughtfully provided.
Each of the discs in this 2-disc set contains bonus material.
There is no audio commentary provided for the movie, but a trivia track is available which pops up facts about the writing of the novel, the making of the movie, and the fashioning of the Broadway musical version of the story. They're done in subtitles, however, and you must read quickly or continually backtrack to get the information.
The original theatrical trailer is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and runs 2 minutes.
Disc two contains the majority of the special features.
“Tangled Web: Making Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a very comprehensive look at the film with interviews with many of the important production personnel before and behind the camera, the story of its torturous pre-production, production, and post production nightmares, and its ultimate triumphs. The 108 ½-minute documentary is presented in 4:3.
“Manuel Puig: The Submissive Woman’s Role” is part biography, part explanation of the original writer’s philosophy behind writing the book. The 4:3 featurette runs 9 minutes.
“Spider Woman on Broadway” is an 11 ¼-minute featurette detailing the rocky road to Broadway for the musical version of the story. Interviews with director Hal Prince, librettist Terrence McNally, composer and lyricist John Kander and Fred Ebb, and star Chita Rivera detail the incredible journey from early fiasco to 7-time Tony winning triumph.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman from Novel to Film” is actually a 36-minute detailed analysis of the movie using stills and production photographs to illustrate critic Norman Lavers’ views on the material.
5 photo galleries which the viewer can step through at his own pace are provided in the following categories: Behind the Scenes, Costume Sketches, Spider Island, Book Covers, and Moments from the Film.
A theatrical trailer (2 minutes), a teaser trailer (1 ½ minutes), and excerpts from prominent reviews are provided for perusal.
Kiss of the Spider Woman remains a haunting, memorable character study of two men who though worlds apart come to an intimate understanding of the qualities each possess which are lacking in the other. With its release on DVD finally a reality, it will be a welcome addition to the collections of many discerning film fans.