Hector Bebenco was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Argentina, but he pursued a career in filmmaking after moving to Brazil. Occasionally, he still lapsed into Sportuguese, but Brazil often embraced him as a representative of their national cinema, with good reason. Nevertheless, Babecno often never really felt like he wholly belonged in either Brazil or Argentina (even though the latter is really just a Spanish-speaking colony of the former, at least as it has been explained to me). Regardless, Brazil has made an unconventional but defensible choice submitting his wife Barbara Paz’s documentary profile of her late husband, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, as their official international feature Oscar contender (they used to call it the “foreign language” category).
Babenco is still best known for his English-language productions, Ironweed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he was nominated for best director), but his final film could well be his most personal. My Hindu Friend thinly fictionalized his own final days before succumbing to cancer and clearly serves as a companion film to Paz’s doc. Its star, Willem Dafoe also served as a producer of her documentary. Although she clearly had sharp editorial differences with her subject, his aesthetic still informs each frame.
In part, Paz’s film serves as an impressionistic survey of Babenco’s filmography, but it also becomes a meditation on the act of dying. Somewhat, ironically, Babenco had a great deal of time to organize his thoughts on mortality, because he was first diagnosed with cancer during the shooting of At Play, nearly thirty years ago (allowing him to fast-forward past at least three Kubler-Ross stages).
Tell, both that of Babenco and Paz, is often absolutely arresting. However, it is notable Paz renders everything in black-and-white, even though Spider Woman and At Play were filmed in color. We can see both sides to this choice. The film maintains a consistent look and tone as a result, but it does not accurately represent the films as they are. Of course, given her closeness to her subject, it is hard to second guess her.
In Tell, Paz (and Babenco) turn melancholia into a high art form. It should also inspire viewers to revisit many of Babenco’s films. Even by the standards of American documentaries, Tell is unusually subjective and even abstract at times. For Brazilian cinema, it is even more so, but it fits Babenco’s sensibilities. Recommended for patrons of Brazilian cinema and visually essayistic docs, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die has been submitted by Brazil for Best International Feature consideration, so it should have plenty of festival life left on the festival circuit.