Hector Babenco, the Argentine-born Brazilian director responsible for iconic films such as Pixote, Kiss of the Spider-Woman and Carandiru died July 13 in São Paulo, Brazil, at age 70, from a heart attack. Babenco had been battling cancer for many years, a struggle that inspired his last project, My Hindu Friend, starring Willem Dafoe as a director facing his mortality.
Born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Babenco discovered a passion for cinema very early. At 18, after a confrontation with his disapproving father, Babenco moved to Spain, where he worked as an extra and a runner for movie projects. Moving to São Paulo, Brazil, in the early 1970s, he started his career as a filmmaker with a documentary about Formula One star Emerson Fittipaldi (O Fabuloso Fittipaldi, 1973).
Babenco’s prolific career in Brazil took place at the height of violent military dictatorships in both his country of birth, Argentina, and his adoptive country, whose citizenship he would soon adopt. His key films of the 1970s and '80s embrace the oppressive social and political climate head on: Lucio Flavio (Lúcio Flavio, Passageiro da Agonia, 1977) chronicles a man pushed into the criminal underground – and the creation of death squads - after his family is persecuted by the military in power; Pixote (Pixote, A Lei do Mais Fraco, 1981), a huge hit in Brazil and overseas (and a Golden Globe nominee), follows the disposable lives of children living in the streets of São Paulo and learning rage and violence in state-run institutions; Kiss of the Spider Woman (O Beijo da Mulher Aranha, 1985), an adaptation of Manuel Puig’s eponymous novel, maintains its gaze on two cellmates in an Argentinian prison – gay man Molina (William Hurt), arrested for “corrupting a minor” and political prisoner Valentin (Raul Julia), in prison for being “subversive”; Sonia Braga plays the title’s Spider Woman, a creature of Molina’s imagination.
Spider-Woman received four Golden Globe nominations – Best Motion Picture, Drama, Best Performance by an Actor, Drama for both William Hurt and Raul Julia, and Best Performance by a Supporting Actress for Sonia Braga. The film earned Babenco an Academy Award nomination for best director (William Hurt received an Oscar in the best actor category), in addition to accolades in Cannes (best actor prize for Hurt, Palme d'Or nomination for Babenco) and at the BAFTA Awards (best actor prize for Hurt).
The film opened the doors – and coffers- of international production for Babenco. In 1987 he directed Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in an adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed, with Nicholson receiving a Golden Globe nomination, and both Nicholson and Streep being nominated for Oscars. In 1991 Babenco directed his biggest project: the Amazon-set drama At Play In The Fields of the Lord, starring Tom Berenger, Daryl Hannah, and John Lithgow. At the time Babenco told the HFPA: “ (In the movie) we were going deeper, before and after the ecological disaster taking place. In some way, the movie’s trying to document or register one of the last and final cycles of destruction that humankind is trying to perpetrate over people who never asked to be visited.”
Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the late 1980s, Babenco would return to his South American roots after Fields, with the Buenos Aires- set Foolish Heart (Coração Iluminado, 1998) and the explosive drama Carandiru (2003), chronicling life in a decrepit, overpopulated and violent prison in São Paulo.
An intensely personal and passionate filmmaker, Babenco opened roads for a whole new generation of Brazilian directors – in many ways City of God would have never been possible without Pixote, for instance – and left his mark on the emerging American filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, like Spike Lee and John Singleton. “When I saw Pixote”, Singleton said, “I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do in film.”