I just watched Kiss of the Spider Woman. I first saw it right after it came out in 1985. It was a great film and particularly appropriate because the authoritarian regime in the film could easily have been the El Salvadorian government of that time, which was a very big issue in the United States. As a result, I probably saw the movie as much more serious than it is. In fact, although the film involves politics and torture, it is highly lyrical.
The thread that holds the entire film together is Luis’ (William Hurt) telling the story of a romantic film he once saw, Her Real Glory. It turns out that it was actually a Nazi propaganda film, but Luis is too naive to have noticed the politics. Valentin (Raul Julia) straightens him out but lets him continue to tell the story, given that Luis is only focused on the romance of it. The film uses this storytelling to recreate it as a film within a film, Her Real Glory. And it is very funny. For example, when the evil men from the French Resistance ran over a young French woman, I burst out laughing. It is not intended to be funny in Her Real Glory but it is in Kiss of the Spider Woman. There other such scenes like one near the end where the French Underground leader tries to rape the woman who is in love with the Nazi Chief of Counter-Intelligence. The villainy of the “bad guys” is just a tad less believable than Snidely Whiplash.
The whole film plays with this kind of postmodern take on perception and it is brilliantly successful. In the end, all of us at any time are stuck in a jail cell with one other person. And regardless of everything else and all of differences, we need to learn to connect with that other person. But ultimately, this is more about respecting ourselves than anything about the other person. So broadly speaking, Luis and Valentin both have the same character arc of self discovery and acceptance.
Practically speaking, Kiss of the Spider Woman is very serious. It brings to mind much more uncomfortable associations than the brutality of the El Salvadorian government which we supported so strongly. As political prisoners are periodically brought into the prison, they are hooded, just like at Abu Ghraib. Of course, the film is not about that or any political question at all. It is about the political nature of human relationships and love. This is why I think it is important to focus on the practical in politics. Ideological rigidity is what leads to Nazism as well as lesser political crimes against our fellow humans. As long as we can extend dignity to each other, all will be okay. Sadly, extending dignity is rarer than it ought to be.
Where the film falls down is in the third act. That is when Luis and Valentin are separated. Luis is paroled and the film spends a lot of time finalizing his personal transformation. It works well enough, but it breaks the spell. Hurt and Julia are so great together that just about anything else would be a let down. However, after the Luis plot is completed, the film ends rather well. Because of his machinations, Luis managed to keep Valentin from being tortured as long as he was around. As soon as he is gone, Valentin is again tortured. We see him in the prison hospital having just been badly tortured. A doctor gives him an injection of morphine and immediately, his lover Marta (Sonia Braga who also plays Leni, the heroine in the Nazi film) grabs his arm and they run out of the prison, to the sea, and sail away in a boat.
It is a beautiful and lyrical ending to the film. But it is also profound. Such personal connections are not only how we manage to continue on against adversary, they are why. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a rare film that looks clear-eyed at the brutality of life and still gives us reasons to say, “Yes!”