Halfway through 2015’s My Hindu Friend, the last film by Brazilian writer-director Héctor Babenco, its main character surmises, “Don’t you think it’s supremely insignificant in the history of humanity that you ran eight seconds faster than you did 20 years ago? We’re never going to have another Fellini film, think of that. That’s what matters.” Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote) can’t match 8½, but his precipitously edited, wistful final film gives way to sporadic beauty.
Diego (Willem Dafoe), My Hindu Friend’s lead and a stand-in for Babenco, is a cancer-stricken director. Semi-autobiographical and often self-indulgent, My Hindu Friend fills its cast list with several of Babenco’s real-life friends. Bárbara Paz (Babenco’s wife until his death in 2016) portrays Sofia Guerra, an alluring actress who catches Diego’s attention. With the notable exception of Dafoe, the cast is comprised of Brazilian actors speaking English.
Diego (a sunken Dafoe) is diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live unless he undergoes an untested treatment. His estranged brother, Antonio (Guilherme Weber), whom he blames for the death of his father, agrees to serve as Diego’s donor for the transplant. Before beginning treatment, Diego marries Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido).
The wedding, overshadowed by Diego’s looming death, elucidates the sacrifices Livia will make by her new husband’s side in the coming months. With Diego fighting for his life during the transplant, Antonio demands a million-dollar check to continue as his brother’s donor. Death personified (Selton Mello, billed as “Common Man”) pays Diego a visit to collect him from Earth. The director refuses, citing his desire to create one last film (how meta) before death.
Dafoe, with four Oscar nominations and somehow no wins, is brilliant as ever. On top of the emotional demands, there’s an inherent physicality to the performance; he’s skin and bones, feebly shuffling around his hospital room. It’s natural to empathize with his anemia, aversion to food, and unendurable pain during invasive procedures. Babenco, likely an unfortunate inspiration for the performance, was sick with cancer while filming My Hindu Friend.
The titular sideplot about Diego’s Hindu friend, a young boy (Rio Adlakha) undergoing cancer treatment himself, is tacked on. The boy doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into the film’s 115-minute runtime. Diego distracts the boy with storytelling, and when they’re both up to it, they play-act movies. The boy offers Babenco a compelling title and central pathos, but a story so personal wasn’t in need of either.
The introduction of the Common Man seems to indicate that Diego is hallucinating through his morphine drip and unregulated pain, but disconnected, inexplicable scenes are the work of shoddy editing, not surrealism. The tonal shifts are as frenetic as the editing. The mood snaps between candid and comedic and carnal. My Hindu Friend is an encapsulation of the Freudian id of a dying man.
Diego ties his independence and self-worth to his sexual capabilities. When his treatment robs him of his ability to get aroused, he draws loathing from himself and Livia. Babenco and cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. deserve credit for cleverly lit hospital interiors and sensitively shooting the gaunt Dafoe, but the male gaze overwhelms the film’s final sexual encounters and its closing scene.
My Hindu Friend is a director paying his respects to storytelling and Hollywood classics like Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Singin’ in the Rain. Babenco, a bravura of Brazillian and world cinema, presents his raw swansong, a picture of illness and the resplendence of life.
My Hindu Friend will release in the U.S. on Amazon Prime Video on June 1, 2020.