August 19, 1985 12:00 PM

Tense, charged with intellectual energy and witty with the dark humor of despair, this film by Brazilian director Hector (Pixote) Babenco is mesmerizing. A major source of its power is the acting by William (Body Heat) Hurt and Raul (Tempest) Julia. Anyone who sees this film will have a hard time forgetting the characters. In a plot taken from a novel by the Argentine-born writer Manuel Puig, Hurt and Julia are cell mates in a prison in Brazil. Hurt is a brazen homosexual, imprisoned for child molestation; Julia is a political prisoner, being tortured because he won’t betray his comrades. Most of the film takes place in their cramped cell, but so wide-ranging are the ideas and so expansive is the acting, the movie never seems confined. Hurt provides what surely must be the best gay performance ever by a major actor, looking and acting like the queen he says he is, but never resorting to cliché or camp. Julia amazingly manages to avoid being upstaged even though his is a quieter performance, as a man so tortured by the need to feel dedication that he refuses to admit to any human weakness. (When Julia disdains an offered piece of avocado, Hurt sneers at him, “What kind of movement is this, that won’t even let you eat a damned avocado?”) Hurt’s way of passing the time, conjuring up in minute detail the plots of dreadfully romantic movies, sets up the contrast: He seems totally irresponsible, concerned only with trivial pleasures, while Julia insists on his idealism. The two men’s relationship evolves in such a natural way that when Julia finally lets Hurt seduce him, more in gratitude for Hurt’s kindness than out of lust, the scene is just a love scene—its homosexuality seems irrelevant. There’s also an effective subplot involving the prison officials’ attempt to suborn Hurt, promising him freedom if he can extract the information they want from Julia. And Sonia (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) Braga, who appears as the always overdrawn heroine of Hurt’s movie plots, provides the right touches of surrealism. This is a prison movie to the same extent that Hamlet is a ghost story. What it is really about is the capacity of the human spirit to surprise, in beautiful ways as well as ugly ones. (R)

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