Argentine-born Brazil-based director Hector Babenco wasted little time making his mark on the world of cinema. In just his first handful of films he was recognized by the likes of the Cannes Film Festival and Academy Awards, and was an instant crossover hit upon his arrival in Hollywood.
Below, Variety revisits the director’s body of work.
1973 – “O Fabuloso Fittipaidi” Babenco’s feature debut, this documentary covers the life and career of Brazilian formula one racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi from the beginning of his driving career through to the height of his success and international popularity.
1975 – “King of the Night” A Brazilian man recalls his life story in this, Babenco’s fiction debut. A now old Tertuliano recalls the love stories of his youth including with a sickly girl who moved half a world away, a prostitute and the three daughters of his mother’s friend.
1977 – “Lúcio Flávio” Babenco’s penchant for adapting existing literature started here, with his first multiple award-winning film. “Lucio Flavio” retells the story of a famous Brazilian criminal from earlier in the decade and went on to win three best picture awards as well as several prizes for its actors. It also brought Babenco his biggest audience in Brazil – 8 million admissions – and death threats.
1980 – “Pixote” Golden Globe-nominated crime drama shot with a documentary touch about the life of a boy living on the streets of São Paulo who becomes involved in organized crime, prostitution and drugs. The director’s first major international hit which was recognized at the likes of Locarno and San Sebastian and featured on the “At the Movies” with famed critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
1984 – “A Terra É Redonda como Uma Laranja” In a tragic example of life imitating art, Babenco returned to São Paolo to shoot this prologue to “Pixote” which examines the true story of Fernando Ramos da Silva, the lead actor from “Pixote,” and the circumstances of his death at the age of 19, killed by the police under dubious circumstances.
1985 – “Kiss of the Spider Woman” Considered by many to be Babenco’s magnum opus, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival and went on to be nominated for four Academy Awards at the 1986 Oscars, with William Hurt winning best actor in both cases. Adapted from Manuel Puig’s novel of the same name, the film turns on two disparate cellmates in a Brazilian prison who trade stories and eventually develop an unlikely friendship.
1987 – “Ironweed” Starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and based on William Kennedy’s eponymous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, receiving two Oscar nominations for its two lead actors, although box office returns were scant, and reviews were mixed. Unspooling in the years after the Great Depression, the story follows alcoholic Francis and terminally ill Helen, a homeless couple visiting Francis’ hometown for the first time in decades.
1991 – “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” Clocking in at just over three hours, Babenco once again adapts a popular novel in this adventure epic which follows explorers Lewis Moon and Wolf, who are stranded in an outpost deep in the Brazilian Amazon river basin. Touching on themes still at the forefront of Brazilian politics today, the two are thrust into a conflict between local police and a nearby indigenous community when they agree to bomb a Niaruna village to drive away the natives in exchange for fuel.
1998 – “Foolish Heart” Featured in the main competition at Cannes in 1998, Babenco returned to Portuguese-language Brazilian cinema with this semi-autobiographical story of Juan. As a teenager the young man found his purpose in life after being gifted a viewfinder. 20 years later, after a successful career abroad as a filmmaker, Juan returns home to visit his dying father and tracks down his former sweetheart Ana.
2003 – 2005 – “Carandiru” “Carandiru: The Series” Originally a book by Dr. Drauzio Varella, a physician brought in to combat an AIDS outbreak at the massively overcrowded prison Carandiru (and who went on to become one of Babenco’s closest friends), this film and series revisits some of the stories leading up to a 1992 massacre in which 111 prisoners were killed, 102 of them by the police. An example of a new Brazilian realism appearing in the cinema of the early ‘00s, Babenco considered “Carandiru” as his most realistic film, being filmed using several former inmates as actors, on location at the prison just before its demolition.
2007 – “The Past” Swapping Portuguese for Spanish, Babenco enlisted a red-hot Gael García Bernal to lead this story of a couple who, after 12 years together, decide to split. At first things are amicable, but when García Bernal’s Rimini moves on a bit too effortlessly the drama kicks in.
2014 – “Words with Gods” – “The Man Who Stole a Duck” Babenco helmed one segment in this, the first of four installments in the “Heartbeat of the World” anthology. In “The Man Who Stole a Duck,” Bebenco follows an abandoned, abusive, alcoholic husband who seeks redemption after letting his infant son die.
2015 – “My Hindu Friend” Bebenco’s final feature stars Willem Dafoe who won best actor at the Montréal World Film Festival for his portrayal of Diego, a cantankerous film director with cancer who befriends an 8-year-old Hindu boy receiving treatment at the same hospital.