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Crosscutting Across Cultures

by Richard Schickel

Doing hard time in a totalitarian state, the only thing a prisoner has a chance of a lifetime retaining inviolate is his fantasy life. Of the two men pent up in a South American cell. Luis (William Hurt), a homosexual, has the easier time doing so. His secret life revolves around the fool's-gold romanticism of old movies. To be precise, one World War II melodrama in which, as he remembers and recounts it. The Gestapo were the heroes and the French Resistance the villains. Luis a decent, motherly sort of chap doesn't care about all that. He just loves the Hun's glamorous night life and stylish livery. Disgusting, snarls his revolutionist cellmate Valentin (Raul Julia), who is being tortured to betray his beliefs and his underground comrades. But perhaps he protests too much. For he encourages Luis to keep spinning out his scenario (which is visualized in wickedly parodistic flashbacks). Ultimately Valentin confesses that his revolutionary ardor is no less a romantic fancy than Luis' old movies are. Both are substitutes for the more immediate and commonplace forms of love that elude these fantasists of impossible perfection. And both surrender to a final irony: real life may be the cruelest of all illusions a fantasy-film star (Sonia Braga) could be a methodical killer. Spider Woman was filmed in Brazil (in English), directed by the Argentine born Hector Babenco from a script by the American Leonard Schrader and a novel by Manuel Puig. This time the artistic melting pot bubbled to perfection. The film's gaudily stylized performances (notably Hurt's, which has grandeur about it), all its tonalities, both visual and verbal are pitched one notch above naturalist. Thus Babenco may subtly explore issues, both political and psychological that are usually dulled by movie-makers' earnestness and self-importance. Full of sudden startlements and twists, the film is delighted by its own originality its own shrewdly controlled outrageousness. If Busby Berkeley had ever made a movie about politics and illusion it might have come out something like this infectious sobering film.