The story of the friendship between a political prisoner and his gay cellmate remains as potent and provocative as it was in 1985.
Thirty years on from its Cannes-feted debut, Hector Babenco’s adaptation of Manuel Puig’s 1976 prison-based novel has lost none of its dramatic power. Beautifully restored, this anniversary release, complete with a disc of extras (interviews, commentaries, etc), offers a timely reminder of a bold and brassy classic that challenged social and political norms in a magnificent manner.
The plot centres on a pair of seemingly mismatched prisoners: political activist Valentin (Raúl Juliá) and his gay cellmate, Molina (William Hurt). The latter recounts a tale of forbidden love, set during World War II, between a French chanteuse and a Nazi officer – a postmodern device, typical of the time, that offers a noir film within a film, and which also helps emphasise the poignancy of the film’s title. Molina’s real motives for his flamboyant storytelling soon become apparent as the action shifts beyond the pair’s cell into the wider prison complex. The authorities are determined to extract information from Valentin via his cellmate and Molina’s charms are their unconventional weapon.
Hurt’s electrifying performance as the camp Molina came at a time when the actor was hot property in Hollywood (his star shone brightly throughout the 1980s, before being resurrected in the early 2000s). Always one to challenge himself on screen and on stage, his Best Actor prize at Cannes was deservedly followed by a Best Actor Oscar and BAFTA the following year. It remains, in many ways, a career-defining performance for the thoughtful, bookish East Coast star.
Hurt’s co-star, the great Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá – whose career was cut tragically short in 1994, following a stroke – similarly offers an intense and sensitive portrayal of the politically engaged Valentin, who forms an unlikely bond with Molina before the two must part. The eventual love scene is relayed with a playful nod to the studios’ infamous Hays Code censorship.
The film appeared at a timely juncture for America, with Ronald Reagan’s right-wing grip on US domestic and foreign policy compounded by his administration’s attitude to the emergence of AIDS. Such was its resonance with audiences, the source material was further adapted for a stage musical in the decade that followed (although it received mixed reviews, it won a Tony Award in 1993).
Today, this much-praised film feels as relevant and provocative as ever, particularly in light of recent developments with LGBT and immigrants’ rights, as well as the sharp rise in inequality in many parts of the West. It’s a theatrical work that defies expectation, offering up a series of very fine set pieces (and performances) that feel as urgent today as they did in 1985.
Watch the trailer: