Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Gay & Lesbian Films, Prison Film  |   Run Time - 119 min.  |   Countries - Brazil, USA  |   MPAA Rating - R
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It's surprising that Kiss of the Spider Woman didn't hit the stage until after it was filmed: Much of the narrative takes place inside the contained space of a Brazilian jail cell, all the more isolated by being boarded off from the rest of the prison. Hector Babenco's sensitive direction avoids claustrophobia by visiting dreamy images from a romantic fantasy/Nazi propaganda film, which William Hurt's Molina describes to Raul Julia's Valentin to distract him from reality. Just as quirky as it sounds, the film triumphs as a study of how imprisonment alters behavioral tendencies -- and inspires unforeseen motivations -- in the prisoners' attempts to simulate normalcy. The gruff Valentin adheres to Molina's flight of fancy and confronts an awakening sexual curiosity, while Molina, the apolitical drama queen, courts danger by agreeing to assist Valentin's rebellion. Both leads show major acting chops here, generously layering their portrayals. Spider Woman is less interesting when it ventures outside the cell, including the muddled, unsatisfying ending. But there's a lot of substance here, and more laughs than one might expect from a prison film, though this certainly strays from that genre. The details of the hokey propaganda film are especially funny.