In Memoriam         HECTOR BABENCO

Hector Babenco

Film director best known for the 1985 classic Kiss of the Spider Woman



If one were to choose one theme which dominated the films of Héctor Babenco, who has died of a heart attack aged 70, it would be a concern for social outcasts, literally and/or figuratively imprisoned. In Babenco's most widely known film, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), set during Argentina's so-called dirty war of the 1970s, Luis Molina (William Hurt), an effeminate gay man, and Valentin Arregui (Raúl Juliá), a macho political prisoner, are incompatible cellmates, who gradually learn to respect one another. To pass the time, the turbaned, eyebrow-plucked Molina acts out his favourite films. "Your life is as trivial as your movies," says Arregui. Molina replies: "Unless you have the keys to that door, I will escape in my own way, thank you."

There was nothing trivial or escapist about Babenco's potent films, including Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which Hurt won the best actor Oscar, and for which the director was Oscar-nominated, the first Latin American person to be nominated in this category. Pixote (1981) dealt with the hundreds of homeless children on the squalid streets of São Paulo, and Carandiru (2003) was set in Brazil's largest and most crowded prison.

Babenco was born and raised in Mar del Plata, Argentina. His mother, Janka Haberberg, was a Polish-Jewish immigrant, and his father, Jaime Babenco, was an Argentinian gaucho of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. A rather sickly and shy boy, Babenco found an escape in going to the movies, watching about 10 a week. He left home shortly after he turned 18, mainly because he did not get on with his father, who was opposed to his son's interest in the arts. Babenco lived in Europe from 1964 to 1968, working as a film extra and as assistant to the directors Mario Bava, Sergio Corbucci and Mario Camus. In 1969, he settled in São Paulo, where he worked on several documentaries, notably the feature-length The Fabulous Fittipaldi (O Fabuloso Fittipaldi, 1973), following the Brazilian world champion racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi, which he co-produced, co-directed and co-wrote. In 1975, he directed his first feature film, King of the Night (O Rei da Noite). A romantic drama about a Don Juan torn between two women, it was set in São Paulo and covered several decades.

Babenco's first hit, Lucio Flavio (1977), about a famous Brazilian bank robber of the early 70s, was an exposé of police corruption, death squads and torture, a brave film to make under the authoritarian military government. The documentary-like Pixote was his first international success. It follows a 10-year-old street urchin and two other homeless boys who are taken into a detention centre. The three boys escape and become involved with a gay drug dealer and an aging alcoholic prostitute.

Inviting comparisons with Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine and Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados, it contains horrifyingly natural performances by actual street children; the boy in the title role returned to his life of crime after making the film and was shot and killed by the police in 1987. Despite the many prizes Pixote accrued around the film festival circuit, it took Babenco several years to raise the funds to make the relatively low-budget Kiss of the Spider Woman, even with Burt Lancaster scheduled to play the camp Luis. Fairly faithful to Marcel Puig's 1976 novel, the film, which faced significant post-production cuts and a legal dispute about who owned the rights, had a huge topical resonance because of the rise of HIV/Aids and the then still widespread prejudice against gay men, who were seldom depicted on screen.

hector babenko 

According to Hurt: "We had to say something about not just gay rights, but about feminine and masculine relationships, and the nature of courage and what it means to speak truth to a power so much greater than you are."

Because of the film's box-office takings and critical approval, Babenco entered the big time with Ironweed (1987), which had a $23m budget. Based on the novel by William Kennedy, it starred Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep as a pair of alcoholic vagrants on the mean streets of Albany, during the last days of the Great Depression. Given a bleak, heightened realistic sheen by cinematographer Lauro Escorel, who shot four of Babenco's films, it is carried by the performances.

Babenco and Escorel then journeyed into the middle of the Brazilian rain forest for At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), which created the right mood and background for the tale of well- and ill-meaning Christian missionaries attempting to convert Amazonian Indians.

In 1994, Babenco had to undergo a bone marrow transplant to treat lymphatic cancer, which put him out of action for four years. He returned with Foolish Heart (1998), an autobiographical saga set in Mar del Plata over the first two decades of Babenco's life. When this ambivalent homage to his father was booed in Cannes, Babenco said: "I felt as though they were booing my life."

Five years later, he returned to Cannes in triumph with Carandiru, which he considered "my most realistic film". The powerful drama was inspired by Dr Drauzio Varella, whom Babenco credited as having saved his life when he was ill, and who had written a memoir about his experiences in the notorious Carandiru penitentiary in São Paulo.

Babenco's final film was My Hindu Friend (2016), which starred Willem Dafoe as a film director dying of cancer who befriends an eight-year-old Hindu boy, also a patient at the hospital.

Babenco's marriages to Fiorella Giovagnoli, Xuxa Lopes and Raquel Arnaud ended in divorce. In 2010, Babenco married the Brazilian actor and model Bárbara Paz. After four years, they divorced amicably but were reconciled last year.

Babenco is survived by Barbara and Janka, his daughter with Giovagnoli, and Myra, his daughter with Arnaud.

Ronald Bergan
first published in:
www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/18/hector-babenco-obituary


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