In Hector Babenco’s “My Hindu Friend,” Willem Dafoe stars as Diego Fairman, a popular film director struggling with cancer. After a bone marrow transplant, he befriends his new hospital roommate, a young Hindu boy who loves listening to and acting out Diego’s stories. Through Diego’s friendship with the boy, he learns to reconnect with the simple joys of life and get over his bitterness, his ego; that’s the end of the movie, right?
Babenco (nominated for an Academy Award and three Palmes d’Or) released this movie in Brazil a year before his death in 2016. He introduces this movie with a title card saying this is based off a story in his life, told in the best way he knows how. This way happens to be a bizarre exercise in self-pity, stitched together with both neurotic and self-aggrandizing moments that results in a bombardment of self-important, look-at-me filmmaking.
It’s most frustrating because of the talent involved. One of Dafoe’s strongest qualities is his glee to jump into the deep end of a character, embodying every emotion to the fullest. There are few actors who can convincingly deliver a hedonistic, cruel takedown of another’s work in one scene, and in a few short minutes, strip himself to a quivering, brittle mess. For as strange or aimless as some scenes can be, Dafoe is completely giving himself to the work; he is always a fascinating presence.
Maria Fernanda Cândido, who plays Diego’s wife Livia, is stellar in her few moments. There’s something to her eyes, so much pain or joy conveyed in a glance or stare. As Diego wrestles with his illness, her life is being drained as well. While the movie hints at the effects on her personal life, she, like many others in the supporting cast, are characterized in this Venn diagram. Are they with Diego or against him? I understand this story is told from Diego’s point of view about Diego, but some exterior perspective would’ve added color and dynamics to the movie.
Hell, even the movie’s namesake is reduced to a handful of scenes. Rio Adlakha is curious and playful, but his character isn’t known by any other name. In the credits, he’s listed as “Hindu Friend.” One of the movie’s worst, yet most hilarious moments sees Diego writing an email to “firstname.lastname@example.org.” The movie has Diego trying to rise above his selfishness, and it can’t even dignify the source of that spark for goodness with a name? What a dehumanizing waste.
Mauro Pinheiro Jr.’s cinematography is striking, modern and vibrant without being flashy. Using minimalism and strong shadows, Pinheiro transforms the potentially limiting locations of a hospital interior into a serene night sky or a DIY interpretation of the Vietnam War (a wildly imaginative scene I can only imagine is here because someone loves Dafoe in “Platoon”). Some of my favorite scenes are made of static wide shots, and coupled with the production design from Clovis Bueno, Caroline Schamall and Bel Xavier, I have a grand time admiring all the knick-knacks and portraits in each room. These are places I just want to live in.
One of Diego’s main struggles is with sexual impotence, often addressed through longing, leering scenes where he watches women masturbate. Pretty weird in a movie titled “My Hindu Friend,” but sure, I’ll go with it. If I squint and tilt my head, I can see how Diego’s impotence extends to a fear of bodily decline, and subsequently, death. If sex is a creative act associated with life, the inability to participate could lead someone to further disassociate themselves with the joys of living. However, Babenco’s presentation doesn’t focus on Diego’s failed participation, but rather his anger, embarrassment and frustration toward women whose pleasure doesn’t include him in the picture. It’s a weirdly vilifying gaze that makes me feel gross, especially since the compositions seem focused in lusting over every naked inch of a woman. You want me to feel his pain? Put him on equal footing. Show his failures below the waist. Place me in his perspective, not with his gaze.
It’s this kind of wishy-washy framing that frustrates me most about “My Hindu Friend.” I can understand, if Babenco based this on his life, how there’d be a hesitance to bare himself open and reveal the worst. That doesn’t mean I’m going to praise a half-assed castigation sprinkled in with self-absorbed celebration as brave or even “the whole truth.” There are wonderful moments, strong performers, images and sequences I’m happy to have seen. But these are few and far between in a pretentious slog whose talent deserves better. If you’re a Dafoe completionist, good luck. If you’re not, your best option is to skip.
For Willem Dafoe completionists, “My Hindu Friend” is available on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming platforms on VOD.
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Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.