Obituary: Hector Babenco
'Kiss of the Spider Woman' filmmaker who was the first Latin American director to be nominated for an Oscar
Hector Babenco, who has died aged 70, was best known for the film Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which, in 1985, he became the first Latin American director to be Oscar-nominated.
Based on Manuel Puig's novel set in the 'dirty war' of repression in Babenco's native Argentina, the film confounded many conventions of cinema. Not only was its narrative dream-like, and its setting in a prison cell claustrophobic, but its central relationship was one of sexual attraction between two men. "My task," said Babenco of the mise-en-scene, "was to make it fresh and open, dynamic."
Raul Julia played a political prisoner, while William Hurt's character - who whiled away the time thinking about dubiously glamorous Nazis - had been arrested for soliciting minors. Yet their performances drew rave reviews, with Hurt going on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film was also the first independent production to be nominated for Best Film, though it lost to Out of Africa.
Hector Eduardo Babenco was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on February 7, 1946. His parents were Jewish, his mother born in Poland and his father, who worked as a gaucho and then as a salesman, was of Ukrainian descent. He and Hector never saw eye to eye. "My father was a gambler and a liar," recalled Babenco, "but he also told wonderful stories."
Hector was a shy boy who found refuge in the cinema, going 10 times a week. He dropped out of school, never went to university and supported himself by odd jobs such as selling clothes door-to-door. Once, working as a hotel porter, he carried François Truffaut's bags.
His first experience on set was as an extra in a film shot in Argentina by the Italian director Dino Risi. Following a quarrel about art with his father, Babenco left for Spain at 18, in part to avoid military service; anti-Semitism was rife in the armed forces. He spent the next four years sleeping rough and working as an extra in spaghetti Westerns such as Sergio Corbucci's Django.
In the late 1960s, he returned to Latin America but chose to settle in Brazil, whose multi-racial culture he found more stimulating than that of his own country.
He continued to live hand to mouth, hawking encyclopaedias, selling tombstones and taking Polaroid photographs of diners in restaurants. He attributed to these experiences his interest as a director in outsiders. "I understand the marginalised," he said, "those who live on the border with death."
"It took a few years to realise that poverty doesn't imply misery," he reflected. "My perspective comes from a mixture of indignation, surprise and compassion."
His first film, in 1973, was a biography of the racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi. He began to be taken seriously four years later with the story of a celebrated bandit in Rio, Lucio Flavio, which also dealt with police death squads.
Babenco's breakthrough was Pixote (1981), slang for "small boy". It was an uncompromising portrayal of criminality in the favelas, much influenced by Italian neo-realism and seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old orphan. The cast was plucked from the streets, notably the protagonist Fernando Ramos, who in 1996 was to be shot dead by the police. Although many told Babenco that the film was too brutal and too unlike Brazil's cheerful image, it proved a huge hit and was nominated for a Golden Globe.
After the success of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco was offered his pick of Hollywood projects. That most of these failed to set the box office alight was due mainly to his determination to do things his way. "Hector has vision," said Jack Nicholson, "and that comes with a hefty price." In 1986, he and Meryl Streep were directed by Babenco in Ironweed, a Depression-era tale that brought them both Oscar nominations but not big audiences.
Babenco followed it, in 1991, with an adaptation of Peter Mathiessen's novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord. This necessitated a gruelling six-month shoot in the Amazon jungle. The film ran for more than three hours and drew few cinemagoers, though it was later an important visual influence on Avatar.
Having already suffered from cancer for some years, Babenco ended up directing the cast from a wheelchair. In 1995, he had a bone marrow transplant. When he returned to cinema on a large scale, it was to make a film of a best-selling novel written by his oncologist.
Carandiru (2002) recounted the stories of the inmates held in the vast, eponymous and infamous remand centre in Sao Paulo, among them that of a transsexual, Lady Di. The film was shot in situ shortly before the prison was demolished, and made use of 8,000 extras.
It was hailed as a return to form, though the pictures that Babenco made thereafter were in his habitually idiosyncratic vein. His last film, My Hindu Friend, which stars Willem Dafoe as a director dying of cancer, was released earlier this year.
Babenco was married four times: first to an Italian, Fiorella Gionagnoli, with whom he had a daughter, Janka, now a photographer; then to the actress Xuxa Lopes; to an art dealer, Raquel Arnaud, with whom he had a daughter, Myra; and since 2010 to the Brazilian actress and former reality television star Barbara Paz, who survives him with his children. He died on July 13.