For her feature documentary directing debut, Brazilian actress Barbara Paz, did not have to travel far, only to the other side of the marital bed as she turns her lens on her husband, filmmaker Hector Babenco. A joint project between spouses, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Brazil’s 2021 international feature film Oscar entry, is an incandescent examination of an auteur’s life and work and a deep dive into an artist’s reckoning with his own mortality as Babenco – who died in 2016 at 70 – wages a losing battle against cancer. Despite that, the film is not maudlin nor is it an elegy. It is a wife’s love letter to her spouse and a celebration of his art.
By the time, Babenco tells his wife, “I’ve already lived my death; now all that is left is to make a film about it,” the Argentinean-born director, who adopted Brazil as his home, has been living with dying for decades. He was only 38, riding high on the strength of his 1981 critically acclaimed drama of the Brazilian favelas Pixote and his Oscar-nominated 1985 Hollywood debut Kiss of the Spider Woman, when he was first diagnosed with cancer. At one point, in the first years of the disease, he was given four to six months to live. Yet, not only did Babenco survive, he thrived for three more decades.
Images in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die are a luminous black-and-white, even the clips from Babenco’s films and behind-the-scenes footage of the director at work rendered so. His last film, 2014’s My Hindu Friend parallels the filmmaker’s real-life situation, as Willem Dafoe (an associate producer on Babenco: Tell Me When I Die) plays a filmmaker facing death. In the documentary, Babenco similarly struggles with his failing health, but his illness is only one facet of the film. Paz takes the measure of her husband’s life: his youth in Argentina, his life as an artist, his love of film. She also limns a devoted couple’s story as they face the biggest challenge of their relationship. It is not a straightforward biography; playful, surreal touches abound as Paz celebrates Babenco’s life in a rich, impressionistic style that bits her subject and his oeuvre.
Babenco: Tell Me When I Die does not yet have a US distributor, but it is screening Jan. 22-Feb. 11 as part of the California Film Institute (CFI)/Smith Rafael Film Center’s 17th annual For Your Consideration: A Celebration of World Cinema. The virtual program comprised of over two dozen of the 93 films eligible for the international feature Oscar this year is available for streaming nationwide on the CFI website. –Pam Grady