Héctor Babenco, the Argentina-born Brazilian director whose films often examined deep political and class divisions and was best known for his Oscar-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, died Wednesday night in Sao Paulo following a heart attack. He was 70.
Born in Buenos Aires, Babenco was raised in Mar del Plata, but in 1969 relocated permanently to Sao Paulo, Brazil after several years spent living in Europe. Subsequently, his work often explored themes stemming from his adopted country’s tumultuous political and economic situation. 1977’s Lucio Flavio, ostensibly about the notorious 1970s Brazilian bandit of the same name, also examined the infamous right wing paramilitary group Esquadrão da Morte (“Death Squad”). And his 1981 breakthrough film Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco, was a brutal, almost documentarian look at how the country’s impoverished and abandoned youths are exploited by criminals and law enforcement alike.
These themes would come together most starkly in 1985 with Kiss of the Spider Woman. Adapted by screenwriter Leonard Schrader from the novel by Manuel Puig, the film stars William Hurt and Raul Julia as a pair of inmates who share a cell at an unspecified time during the Brazilian military dictatorship. William Hurt would go on to win an Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a conflicted gay man, imprisoned for having had sex with an underage boy, who has agreed to spy on his cellmate, a left wing revolutionary subjected to constant torture, in exchange for early release. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Among Babenco’s other films are 1987’s Depression-era tragic romance Ironweed, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, the 1991 adventure drama At Play in the Fields of the Lord, the 2003 drama Carandiru about the infamous Brazilian prison best known as the site of a 1992 massacre, and his final film, My Hindu Friend, released in 2016 and starring Willem Dafoe.
Babenco previously survived a battle with cancer in 1994. He’s survived by his wife and daughter.