My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.
At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.
Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.
My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.
The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).
Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.
Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer: