Artists of all stripes have openly grappled with the spectres of their own mortality, but few film directors have confronted their own looming deaths as bluntly, or with as much vitality, as did Hector Babenco by participating in this climactic work, the part-sober documentary/part-boisterous extravaganza Babenco: Tell Me When I Die. Eschewing sentimentality and regret altogether, the Argentinian-Brazilian director of such powerful dramas as Pixote and Kiss Of the Spider Woman enthusiastically embraced the idea of confronting his own appointment with oblivion in this rambunctious and stylish obituary, which was directed by his wife, Barbara Paz. This is Brazil’s candidate in the Academy’s Best International Feature Film category this year, after having debuted at the 2019 edition of the Venice Film Festival.
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Babenco was first diagnosed with cancer when he was just 38, just as he began production of his one big Hollywood films, Ironweed, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. He battled it again a few years later while shooting At Play In The Fields Of The Lord in Brazil. Thereafter, Babenco directed four smaller, lesser-known films in South America before dying in 2016. The documentary reveals that he dealt with his death sentence mano-à-mano, an effort that energetically included the making of this work, which would constitute a creative farewell. For such a homemade venture, the film is unusually ambitious and elaborate.
Stripped of sentimentality or a sense of mourning, the black-and-white feature, which runs just 73 minutes, stylistically borders on the Fellini-esque; the camera swirls and moves with an energy that, paradoxically enough, feels far more youthful than melancholy. Neither is there a trace of self-pity nor, on the part of his wife, fear of what lies ahead for her.
Some might feel that undertaking on such a project, for which there will be no happy ending, represents a form of avoidance of reality. At times, especially in the late-going, it’s true that there’s a “let’s-put-on-a-show” aspect to the proceedings that might rub the sober-minded or religiously-inclined the wrong way. But so what? Kafka wrote that, “The meaning of life is that it stops,” but until that moment, there is no reason to cease doing what has been most important to someone, particularly a creative artist, in life.
Or, as Babenco puts it at the beginning of the film, “I’ve already lived my death and all that is left is to make a film about it.” To anyone who knew him, as I did in the 1980s in the U.S. and Brazil, it’s initially jolting to see this vibrant, ever life-affirming man shaven-headed and bloated in his post-cancer treatment state. All the same, it only takes a moment to realize that he’s still got “it,” the creative impulse, the drive and intellect that compels him to keep shooting and make something. At one point, the director remarks that it’s “as if by filming you’re living an extra day”; at another, he remarks, “It’s a film about filming so never to die.” Either way the point is clear.
While Babenco remains front-and-center in the documentary in the present tense, Paz does look back on the man’s life in bits and pieces, albeit not in anything resembling the manner of an “official” biography.
There is brief but evocative footage of the Mar Del Plata of his 1950s youth, a mention of his Jewish ancestry, even if he felt he didn’t “belong in the community,” and the lure that Visconti’s films provided in seducing him into the world of cinema. He also had a view of himself as an anarchist, which eventually led him to train his cameras on the outcasts who populated Pixote, the stunning portrait of a Brazilian street urchin that put him on the map in 1980, and then on the gay prisoner character of Kiss Of The Spider Woman, a great success for which lead actor William Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar. The man was individualistic, true to himself and never “went Hollywood.” Miscasting of the leading roles was probably most to blame for the failure of the ambitious At Play In The Fields Of the Lord.
This disappointment combined with his bone marrow transplant occasioned by lymphatic cancer in 1994 sent Babenco back to Brazil for good. The opposite of vain, his wife’s documentary spares us almost nothing concerning his physical ills, plainly exhibiting his weary, bloated body in hospital and home treatment rooms, sometimes in wide-eyed close-ups. He is given just a few months to live, only to blithely walk right past that deadline and others that followed. He even managed to make a final film, 2015’s My Hindu Friend, starring Willem Dafoe, just before he died. The subject: A film director who is close to death.
All the same, the mood of the documentary is far from somber or sullen. To the contrary, it’s abundantly vigorous, full of movement, inquiry, people popping in and out, medically gross realities that must be dealt with, uncertainty — in other words, the stuff of life and death. There is almost nothing in the way of laments, regrets, tearful sadness or judgments. On balance, the man we see in the film is handling his predicament with unembarrassed honesty and directness.
The film itself is in high-grade black-and-white; oddly, so are the clips of Babenco’s own films, which were all shot in color. One must presume that the director himself condoned this decision, and there’s a certain fascination in seeing familiar scenes in monochrome, even if it’s a bit disorienting and, in the end, a misrepresentation.
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