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SCREEN:  “Spider Woman”

by  Janet Maslin

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" begins with a theatrical-sounding homosexual describing the plot of an old movie ("her petite ankle slips into the perfumed water") for the benefit of his prison cellmate, a dour Marxist. There is nothing in this seemingly frivolous, beautifully staged opening to betray the film’s tremendous reserves of seriousness and passion. Nor are there sufficient clues in the previous film careers of the director, Hector Babenco (the highly praised " Pixote"), or the two stars. William Hurt and Raul Julia, to anticipate the stature of the work they do here. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a brilliant achievement for all of them, staged with the perfect control and fierce originality that make it one of the best films in a long while.

Mr. Hurt won a well-deserved best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for a performance that is crafty at first, carefully nurtured, and finally stirring in profound, unanticipated ways. What starts out as a campy, facetious catalogue of Holly-wood trivia becomes an extraordinarily moving film about manhood, heroism and love. As Luis Molina, the storyteller who keeps his cellmate Valentin Arregui entertained with pulp movie fiction, Mr. Hurt is first seen wrapping a red towel around his head as a turban, the better to impersonate the female star of the him he to describing. The red scarf he ties around his neck in the climactic sequence is both a reminder of his earlier character end a sign of the completeness of his transformation.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman," which opens today at Cinema I, has been adapted by Leonard Schrader from Manuel Puig’s unusually structured novel with on imaginativeness that amounts to absolute fidelity.

The book, which contains no physical description whatsoever and establishes its characters entirely through what they think and say, intermingles dialogue between the cellmates, footnotes referring obliquely to their psychological makeup, and the lengthy recapitulations of movie plots that punctuate their conversation. All of these things manage somehow to form a seamless narrative, one that has bean made even more so on the Screen.

The initial disparity between Valentin and Molina (as they address one another) becomes a dichotomy between superficiality end seriousness. Molina is quite literally a window-dresser who has been jailed for molesting minors, whereas Valentin is a political prisoner. Valentin tells Molina, "Your life is as trivial as your movies"; Molina replies. "If you have the keys to that door, I will gladly follow. Otherwise, I will escape in my own way, thank you." Mr Puig typically couches the debate between them in mundane, even homey terms. When Molina offers his cellmate some extra food, Valentin snaps, "I can't afford to get spoiled." Molina argues that one must take what life offers. Valentin replies self-righteously that what life offers him is his cause, and that everything else is secondary. "What kind of cause is that," asks the sly Molina, "A cause that won't let you eat an avocado?"

The grace with which the film establishes the growing affection between these two, a fondness that tempers their ideological dispute to the point at which they understand one another completely, is given an element of suspense by the possibility of Molina's treachery.

It is this that makes Mr Hurt's performance so exquisitely poised.

When his face sags, sick with fear, during a telephone conversation late in the story, the extent of his earlier artifice becomes visibly apparent. Before taht, his Molina is by turns coy, flirty, confessional and entertaining, offering only the tiniest indications of where his true loyalties may lie. His face, for all its quicksilver changes of expression, remains essentially opaque. Only gradually do his actions - this is a film that manages to derive a scene of astonishing tenderness from one character's violent indigestion - begin to verride his histrionics. Mr Hurt also succeeds in making the campy, flamboyant aspects of Molina's homosexuality seem credible and metaphoric in equal measure.

If Mr Hurt has never been so daringly extroverted on the screen before, Mr Julia has never been so restrained. And they meet halway in a manner that is electrifying. Their taemwork, choreographed with a relentless, escalating rhythm by Mr Babenco, never falters, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it is frequently interrupted. Several films-within-the-film, illustrating Molina's movie descriptions and starring the Brazilian actress Sonia Braga as the satirically elegant grande dame, serve as refracted images of the main action, couching the larger film's concerns with love and honor in witty, deliberately cliched terms. Mr Babenco, whose tough, unsparing "Pixote" was so impressive, weaves all these elements together in ways that reveal whole new reserves of precision, sophistication and even humor.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" unfolds slowly at first, building gradually and carefully until its momentum becomes urgent and palpable. From its droll, playful opening to its trancendent coda, it has the mark of greatness from beginning to end.