‘Babenco: Tell Me When I Die’ Review: A Moving, Eccentric Lover’s Elegy for Héctor Babenco

“I have already lived my death — all that’s left is to make the movie.” So says celebrated Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Héctor Babenco in a documentary that, sure enough, attempts to bring closure to a life already concluded. After three decades of living with cancer and related complications, Babenco passed away in 2016 aged 70; directed by his widow Bárbara Paz, “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die” movingly serves as both valedictory and valentine, channeling and preserving the spirit of an artist who vocally feared that his life’s work hadn’t been completed. “Tell Me When I Die” may technically be Paz’s first film rather than the eponymous director’s last, but an intimate air of collaboration colors the whole monochrome affair: As a portrait of a dying man trying to at least co-direct his own farewell, it’s so sorely tender as to be a little discomfiting.

The first documentary ever chosen as Brazil’s official submission for the international feature Oscar, this brief but cryptically constructed work is an unconventional pick for the country in several ways — though its selection does aptly honor the legacy of a filmmaker rather adventurously nominated by the Academy for his first English-language feature, 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” (Two other Babenco films, “Pixote” and “Carandiru,” were Brazilian Oscar submissions in their respective years.) First unveiled at last year’s Venice fest, where it snagged the Venice Classics award for best film-themed documentary, “Tell Me When I Die” has since popped up far and wide on festival programs: a more sympathetic environment for its specialist focus and fractured style, perhaps, than the general arthouse circuit.

Any viewers unfamiliar with Babenco’s life and work should not look to Paz’s film for a primer. Even those better-versed in his career may be caught off guard by the conceptual loops and leaps of a tribute that largely forgoes biographical detail, instead freely merging first-hand observational footage, interpretive dramatization, dreamily abstract interludes and extracts from Babenco’s own films. Even those color film clips have been reformatted to fit the film’s uniform black-and-white aesthetic, cementing the impression of art and life inextricably bonded, in constant imitation of each other. That one of the excerpted films is his semi-autobiographical swansong “My Hindu Friend,” which starred Willem Dafoe (credited here as an associate producer) as a dying filmmaker very much in Babenco’s image, only heightens the hall-of-mirrors effect.

For all these intricate games of perception, however, the film’s most effective material is its simplest: diary-like footage of Babenco himself toward the end of his life, demonstrating significant reserves of creative energy and gallows humor in the face of a terminal diagnosis. He frankly considers his mortality in interviews to camera, expressing his concern that the documentary be precisely the final testament he intends: There’s an element of affectionate mentorship to various moments where he advises his wife and novice documentarian on her filming technique, but also an urgent need to control his portrait. Until it’s right, he suggests, he cannot rest: “The desire to be alive materialised from the concept of making a movie, as if by filming you’re living an extra day.”

Elsewhere, present-day anxieties give way to solemn, candid reflections on his past, and in particular, his mixed cultural heritage: Born in Buenos Aires to Jewish parents of Eastern European origin, he adopted Brazil as his home country in adulthood. Yet he never felt complete acceptance there, and claims a profound personal identification with the “outcasts” at the center of many of his films — though viewers will have to know said films rather well to infer this from the teasing, context-free clips that have been woven into the mix. As a two-way study of love and art shared between spouses with little time left, “Tell Me When I Die” is elegant and affecting, with even its most enigmatic flourishes and asides telling us something of the relationship at hand. As an obituary for Héctor Babenco, it’s principally an invitation to other, more prosaic scholars and docmakers: a reminder that his career merits greater study.

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