In his films – about thieves, vagabonds and police mayhem – both Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep played, as well as unknown inhabitants of the Brazilian slums. Director Hector Babenko made the Amazon famous and became a classic during his lifetime.
The future director was born in 1946 in the Argentine resort town of Mar del Plata. His father Jaime Babenko was a Ukrainian Jew who became a gaucho in Argentina, that is, a shepherd-farmer. Janka Haberberg’s mother was also from a Jewish family, but of Polish origin. Ector himself from a young age was interested in creativity, which his father categorically did not approve. So at the age of 18, he left for Europe to work in films – first as an extra actor, then as an assistant to directors Mario Bava and Sergio Corbucci.
The young man then returned to South America and settled in São Paulo, Brazil, filming short films and commercials for local television. His first major work with Roberto Farias was a documentary about the legendary Brazilian racer Emerson Fittipaldi, who won twice Formula 1. In 1975, Hector directed his first full-length feature film, the love drama King of the Night. And now the next motion picture “Lucio Flavio, Passenger of Agony” became a hit in the box office in Brazil. She talked about a famous bank robber from Rio de Janeiro, who in the early 70’s was a beautiful escape from persecution and whom many admired. Flavio exposed the conspiracy of the Brazilian police with the notorious death squads, who executed criminals without trial. But he himself did not escape reprisals. The film was very daring for that era, because the country was ruled by the military. However, they had to swallow the resentment – Babenko’s success helped the Brazilian film industry to get out of another crisis.
In the 1981 film Pisciote: The Law of the Weakest, the director portrayed the slums of São Paulo and Rio through the prism of young Pisciote, a juvenile delinquent escaping the hell of a penal institution. The boy is trying to start life from scratch in the company of his new friends – the transsexual Lilica and her boyfriend Dito. But life of crime sucks him in again. This is the story behind the film that actually happened and was described by Jose Luzeiro in Childhood of the Dead. The role of Pisciote was played, or rather lived, by the non-professional actor Fernando Ramos da Silva. He, like the hero, had a criminal past. In the future, he will be killed by police shots in Sao Paulo. There were many other great roles in that film – for example, the outstanding Brazilian actress Marilla Pera played the prostitute Suely. And at the beginning of the picture, we see Babenko himself against the backdrop of the slums of Sao Paulo – he calls to pull the children of the favelas out of the jaws of poverty and humiliation and give them a chance for a new life. The film turned out to be very strong – and was recognized as the best film of the year in Brazil. In addition, the film was nominated for a Golden Globe and later won the Silver Leopard for Best Director at the Locarno Festival.
The success of Pishote was followed by several films with American producers. In 1985, the sensational American-Brazilian film “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” based on the novel of the same name by Argentinean Manuel Puig was released. Many consider this picture to be the best in Babenko’s career. This is certainly his most famous film. The action takes place during the “dirty war” in Argentina in the second half of the 70s, when the military junta ruling in the country brutally suppressed protests, kidnapped, tortured and killed opponents, and kept them illegally in prisons. The film, without hypocrisy, tells the story of the love story of a visionary and film lover Luis Molina, at first completely apolitical, to the political prisoner Arrega, with whom he shares a cell. Molina turns out to be a spy working for the junta, but for the sake of Arrega rejects the deal and eventually dies. For his role as Louis Molina, William Hurt received an Oscar for Best Actor and The Palm in Cannes. Spider-Woman’s Kiss was the first Latin American film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. True, he did not receive the award, but he still became a cult.
Babenko’s next project was “Thistle” with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep based on the novel of the same name by William Kennedy, for which the writer received the Pulitzer Prize. Again before us are declassed elements from the difficult decade after the Great Depression in the United States, a love triangle of three “exes”: former baseball star Francis Phelan, now a homeless man and an alcoholic, his former lover Helen, a former singer and also a degraded alcoholic, and Francis’s ex-wife – Anne Phelan. At the end of October, Halloween is being celebrated on the streets, Francis is trying to improve her life with Ann, but the past cannot be returned: Anne does not want to start over, and Helen is doomed. In the city of Albany, where the drama unfolds, vigilant fighters against the homeless begin to hunt for the unreliable and drive all the vagabonds out of the city, the beaten Francis leaves in a boxcar. In general, the film was not the most successful in the director’s career and failed miserably at the box office, but for its traditionally strong performance Meryl Streep as Helen and Jack Nicholson as Francis received Oscar nominations.
Following this, “Playing in the Fields of the Lord” tells about the clash of faith, morality and ethics. American explorer Lewis Moon, played by Tom Berenger, with partner Wolf, played by singer Tom Waits, are stuck in the town of Man de Deus, in the heart of the Amazon – their plane ran out of fuel. The mayor of the city persuades them to scare the Niaruna tribe so that they leave and give him the opportunity to search for gold in these places. As a result of the accident, Moon gets to Niaruna and becomes part of the tribe. Also, missionaries come to Nearuna, with whom the Indians do not have a common language. Moon asks the missionaries to help with medicines against the fever, which is killing everyone, but then the bombardment of the Indian settlement begins. In terms of realism, Babenko remained true to himself here: in the role of the Niarun Indians, a real Indian tribe from the Amazon played the role. The composer Zbigniew Preisner received a Golden Globe nomination for the music for the film. Critics noted the play of actors, including Indians, and a deep immersion in the world of Amazonian realities, where the last Indian tribes perish and forests are cut down, natural resources are barbarously siphoned off, and profit seekers do not disdain anything for the sake of enrichment. Almost 20 years later, James Cameron used Babenko’s painting as the main source of inspiration for his Avatar.
The film “Karandiru” was released in 2003 and became Babenko’s greatest success after “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”. Once again, he returned the topic of attitude towards prisoners to the big screen, telling the whole world about the most terrible prison on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, a riot in which they literally drowned in blood. Before us are whole galleries of images of criminals, and every one of them is a pity. Carandiro became the best film of the year in Brazil and has collected a crop of prizes around the world.
After “Karandiru” Babenko released two more films. In The Past, Gael Garcia Bernal shone as a translator of Rimini films: he cannot part with his ex-wife, and he has a complete failure with other women. Here the situation is somewhat similar to Babenko himself, who had four marriages, including with the famous Brazilian actress Shusha Lopez. His last wife was actress and model Barbara Paz – he first broke up with her, but then got back together and lived until his death.
Babenko’s last film, My Indian Friend, was released in 2015. Daniel Defoe played the main role in this largely autobiographical story about a director struggling with death. With frightening certainty, his hero shows through what suffering a passionate human spirit goes through in order to prove the right to life and love. Babenko himself briefly outlived the hero from The Indian Friend. Finally, the director frankly appeared before the audience – with all his fears and triumphs – in his wife Barbara Paz’s documentary Tell Me When I Die. In it, he talks about himself, standing on the threshold of eternity and perfectly aware of this.