The film tells of two very different men who share a prison cell in Brazil during the Brazilian military government: Valentin Arregui, who is imprisoned (and has been tortured) due to his activities on behalf of a leftist revolutionary group, and Luis Molina, a pederast in prison for having sex with an underage boy.
Molina passes the time by recounting memories from one of his favorite films, a wartime romantic thriller that's also a Nazi propaganda film. He weaves the characters into a narrative meant to comfort Arregui and distract him from the harsh realities of political imprisonment and the separation from his lover, Marta. Arregui allows Molina to penetrate some of his defensive self and opens up. Despite Arregui occasionally snapping at Molina over his rather shallow views of political cinema, an unlikely friendship develops between the two.
As the story develops, it becomes clear that Arregui is being poisoned by his jailers to provide Molina with a chance to befriend him, and that Molina is spying on Arregui on behalf of the Brazilian secret police. Molina has apparently been promised a parole if he succeeds in obtaining information that will allow the secret police to find the revolutionary group's members.
Molina eventually declares that he is in love with Arregui, and Arregui responds after a fashion, culminating in a physical consummation of their love on Molina's last night in prison. Molina is granted parole in the hopes Arregui will reveal information about his contacts when he knows Molina will be out of prison. Arregui provides Molina with a telephone number and a message for his comrades. Molina at first refuses to take the number, fearing the consequences of treason, but he relents, and he and Arregui bid farewell with a kiss.
In the final scenes, Molina calls the telephone number, and a meeting is arranged with the revolutionary group. But the secret police have had Molina under surveillance, and a gun battle ensues, with the revolutionaries, assuming Molina has betrayed them, shooting him. As he wanders the streets wounded, the policemen catch up with him and demand that he disclose the telephone number in exchange for them taking him to the hospital for treatment, but Molina refuses and succumbs to his wounds. On the orders of the police chief (Milton Gonçalves), the policemen dump Molina's body in a rubbish pit and fabricate a story about his death and involvement with the revolutionary group.
Meanwhile, back in the prison Arregui is being treated after being tortured once again. In the clinic, a sympathetic doctor administers him morphine to help him sleep, risking his job in the process, Arregui escapes into a dream where he is on an idyllic tropical island with Marta.William Hurt as Luis Molina
Raúl Juliá as Valentin Arregui
Sonia Braga as Leni Lamaison/Marta/Spider Woman
José Lewgoy as Warden
Milton Gonçalves as Secret Policeman
Míriam Pires as Molina's mother
Nuno Leal Maia as Gabriel, Molina's friend
Fernando Torres as Americo
Patricio Bisso as Greta
Herson Capri as Werner, Leni's German lover and Chief of Counter-Intelligence in movie fantasy
Denise Dumont as Michelle, Leni's best friend in movie fantasy
Antônio Petrin as Clubfoot, Resistance fighter in movie fantasy
Wilson Grey as Flunky, Resistance fighter in movie fantasy
Miguel Falabella as Lieutenant
The story features a "film within a film", featuring Luis Molina episodically telling Valentin Arregui the plot of a fictional film called Her Real Glory ostensibly produced in Germany during the Second World War by the Nazis.
The film is based on the 1976 novel El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) by Manuel Puig. The Argentinian author was the first to adapt his own novel as a stage play. A Broadway musical of the same name also based on the same story, was produced in 1993.
Early in development, Burt Lancaster was initially going to portray Luis Molina.
During filming in Brazil, Hurt and a friend were threatened at gunpoint but were let go several hours later.
Since Babenco "barely" spoke English, Hurt took direction from him via an assistant director.
The film received positive reviews. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 88% based on reviews from 24 critics.
Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four, calling it a "film of insights and surprises" and remarking that "the performances are wonderful." James Berardinelli gave Kiss of the Spider Woman three stars out of four, calling it "a fascinating character study." Reviewing the film in 2009, Berardinelli claimed that it "has lost none of its power over the years," and felt that it was more deserving of the Best Picture Academy Award than Out of Africa.
The DVD version contains a voluminous commentary ( accessible via the subtitles) on the making of the film, and on the careers of the writers, actors and producers; as well as the post-production history of the film .
William Hurt won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film was also nominated for Best Picture (the first independent film to do so), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Hurt also won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards, the 1985 Cannes Film Festival and several other festivals. The film was awarded the inaugural Golden Space Needle award from the Seattle International Film Festival.