This is the first English-language film by Hector Babenco, who lives in Brazil. It is based on Argentinean Manuel Puig's 1976 novel of the same title and has been adapted for the screen by Leonard Schrader.
The setting is a prison in Latin America where Molina (William Hurt), a homosexual window dresser serving an eight-year sentence for molesting a young boy, shares a cell with Valentin (Raul Julia), a revolutionary who has been arrested for creating labor unrest.
The two men couldn't be more different: Molina is an artist, anxious to please, and a lover of fantasy whereas Valentin is ascetic, stern, and a firm believer in the righteousness of revolt against the repressive government. "Enjoy what life offers you," Molina tells him. "What life offers me is the struggle," replies the revolutionary.
To help pass the time, Molina spins out old movie yarns. One is about a French chanteuse who falls in love with an SS officer, and the second is a tale of tropical romance. Sonia Braga stars in both of these "B" movies," which serve as a symbolic counterpoint to the debate in the cell over the true meaning of sexual and ideological politics in difficult times.
Molina makes a deal with the warden to obtain the names of Valentin's accomplices in exchange for parole, but now he finds himself falling in love with this "real man." Reviewing his life, the revolutionary sees his own vulnerability and the two cell mates exchange meanings physically and spiritually.
Out on the streets, Molina lays down his life trying to make contact with Valentin's comrades. It is a theatrical act that gives substance to all his fantasies of passion and self-sacrifice. And Valentin facing a bleak future of further solitude and torture is buoyed up by fantasies of his own making.
Kiss of the Spider Woman begins slowly, ambles through some rough spots (the Nazi movie-within-the movie doesn't really click), and then kicks into high gear at the end. Puig's subtle insights into the value of imagination, love, and heroism are carried home by the bold and touching performances of William Hurt and Raul Julia.
Special DVD features include a feature length documentary: "The Making of Kiss of the Spider Woman"; a Manuel Puig mini-documentary: "The Submissive Woman's Role"; "Spider Woman on Broadway": a mini-documentary with Hal Prince, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Chita Rivera, Terrence McNally, and Manuel Puig; a slide show commentary: the Transition from Novel to Film; and photo galleries: Over 150 Exquisite Images.