My Hindu Friend, directed by filmmaker Hector Babenco (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Carandiru) is a semi-autobiographical confessional. It’s not the only film he made of this kind, he explored relationships between men and women in similar autobiographical films (such as El pasado and Corazón iluminado), often with a lead character who’s a photographer or filmmaker, as a proxy for Babenco himself.
The story begins as Diego (Willem Dafoe), a highly regarded Argentinian-Brazilian filmmaker afflicted by cancer, is sent to the US to undergo a bone-marrow transplant. Just before he goes, he marries his long-time partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) who then accompanies him for his extended stay and treatment in the US. Diego is a man of appetites; poetry, art, alcohol, food and most of all: sex.
The film’s told from his perspective, in an alternately surreal, reflective (though never sentimental) fashion with Fellini-esque flights of frank sexuality, eroticism and existential whimsy, such as one sequence that features Diego in his hospital bed, playing chess with a spectre we presume to be Death.
Illusions to Ingmar Bergman notwithstanding, the film is fairly aware that its protagonist is something of a self-centred prick. He’s indifferent and cold to his dutiful wife, accuses her of having affairs in his more paranoid moments and expects solace from her when he collapses in fits of tears in his descent into self-pity. He’s in mortal fear of his life and he’s angry.
The treatment for his cancer is a harsh process, though it’s when he’s visiting the hospital as an outpatient during chemotherapy that he befriends a young Indian boy (Rio Adlakha) who’s also undergoing therapy, whom Diego refers to afterwards only as ‘My Hindu Friend’. The hours they share in the treatment room, both tethered to IVs, sees Diego regaling the boy with stories of make-believe and adventure that seem to pierce through the emotionally deadened exterior Diego has exhibited up till this point, allowing him to access a long-dormant part of himself. The rest of the story then plays out how this changes his life perspective and the relationships with his family and wife.
Of Babenco’s harrowing neo-realist film Pixote, film critic Pauline Kael said: “Babenco’s imagery is realistic, but his point of view is shockingly lyrical. South American writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, seem to be in perfect, poetic control of madness, and Babenco has some of this gift, too.” By fuelling the story of My Hindu Friend with details from his real-life battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his subsequent bone-marrow transplant, his tribulations became grist for the cinematic mill, though as fate would have it, his fatal heart attack in 2016 has seen the film become his final statement of sorts. Such a rapid shift in context sees it taking on a tone and perspective that’s vastly different than the one initially intended. Babenco was clearly in the thrall of Fellini (whose death is referenced in the film) and its fragmented, dream-like examination of the flaws and foibles of a self-centred filmmaker reassessing his life and art, is made all the more compelling with the knowledge that there’ll be no further films from this singular and stridently honest filmmaker.
My Hindu Friend is released digitally (Amazon, iTunes, inDemand, DirecTV, Vudu, Google Play, FANDANGO, Vimeo on Demand, FlixFing, Hoopla, AT&T, Xbox, Sony & Sling/Dish).