Review: My Hindu Friend

Written and directed by Hector Babenco, his last feature before he passed away, likely best known for his 1980 film Pixote. Diego (Willem Dafoe) is a film director very close to death, surrounded by people who are having trouble dealing with his current tempestuous mood, chances are he won’t survive but if he does, that means he needs to relearn how to live. Also starring: Maria Fernanda Cândido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Selton Mello, Bárbara Paz, Guilherme Weber and Dan Stulbach.

Having a feature about a film director with cancer, made by a director who previously had cancer does give the strong impression that his personal experiences must have influenced his writing on this project. It can most likely be seen in the way that Diego is spoken to and treated by various different medical professionals, beginning with his local doctor who’s treated him for a decade who has compassion for his case and moving to the parade of different specialists who take over once he reaches America. There’s an intimacy to that first appointment, as he and his wife are informed that they must take a more severe option for treatment for the sake of his survival, there’s an honesty and openness to it but when he’s introduced to his new doctors there’s a change in speed and tone, becoming very clinical and cold. There’s also the way that it portrays Diego’s pain as he goes through this extensive treatment, and its later side effects, it doesn’t shy away from it but it also doesn’t take over too larger portion of the film. It has almost an uncomfortable nature to how it faces the pain head on, as well as giving the impression of how the patients may feel like lab rats, being surrounded with an abundancy of tubes and machines. It’s perhaps the way in which the film is strongest emotionally and it wouldn’t be a surprise if that sincerity came from Babenco’s personal experiences influencing its telling.

Exploring that pain puts a significant burden on Dafoe to really give himself to the role and it feels as though he did exactly that, physically he looks almost disturbing before the further treatment even begins. Which is well highlighted through a mix of the direction and almost certainly an intensely strict diet for Dafoe, but it goes much further than just the visual, his performance in those powerful moments is poignant and almost difficult to watch. Cândido’s performance provides the outsider perspective to these events, she makes you feel that desperation to help but being unable, wanting to be selfless but struggling to have to watch her husband go through so much pain. It’s a complicated relationship and both their performances reflect that but perhaps more so Cândido’s, she manages to move through the emotions of love and fear in a way that you can see there’s something more under the surface, she may be standing by his side but ultimately she’s aware of what kind of man he is. In that sense it’s very interesting to watch their chemistry as they balance being pulled toward each other at the same time as something in the background keeping them slightly at a distance.

The only other performance that feels significantly featured enough to mention is that of Bárbara Paz as Sofia, she arrives in the latter stages of the film but adds more energy and vivacity than possibly the rest of the film combined has. She provides a strange moment at the very end of the film that most viewers will probably interpret in many different ways, it has an unusual style and the performance is uninhibited and mysterious, it’s a shame she appeared so late as it would have added to the film to find out more about her character with such a strong personality.

There’s a strong philosophical theme running throughout the film and it’s one that isn’t entirely successful, the way that it interprets death and physically represents it is somewhat unoriginal and slightly pretentious. There are interesting facets to be found in Diego’s bargaining with death to extend his life but at the same time having him play chess with death feels too on the nose, even if taken as a homage, it’s too obvious. It doesn’t feel as though the film really committed to this idea, it takes up a fair chunk of the runtime but doesn’t achieve too much that couldn’t have been implied in a less convoluted manner. That non-committal atmosphere is a problem that the film has all throughout, in particular with the fact that the titular friendship feels like it was a secondary thought, it doesn’t permeate the story enough to be used as the central idea. It would have been great to include it more consistently but it’s extremely one sided, it’s mostly scenes of Dafoe being a storyteller than building any real friendship and it lacks a more meaningful air to it. Diego’s relationship with his brother and the lifelong resentment he holds to how events passed at the time of their father’s death was an intriguing inclusion and it’s a shame it wasn’t involved more deeply in the story, again it’s something that needed more significance. All of which put together results in something that creates no real connection, there are various different elements but they don’t feel like part of one story, there’s a disconnection and unfocused nature to them. As a whole it just doesn’t feel like it knows what it’s trying to say, there’s the glimmer of a message but then it’s made messy by various strange inclusions, for instance the film’s relationship with sex which is shallow, resentful and almost passive aggressive for the most part, so it feels unnecessary to include when it doesn’t add anything to the development of the story or characters but it’s a fairly frequent visitor.

Ultimately My Hindu Friend is stylistically interesting and the performances are well done but it doesn’t have an anchor to hold onto, it’s messy and unfocused without a tangible intention. There’s an undeniable disconnected nature to the story and it’s a shame that the more intriguing aspects that the story has are the ones it explores the least. Dafoe’s Diego isn’t inherently likeable, there’s a coldness and apathy to his demeanour, although once trying to start a new lease on life he does change ever so slightly, it’s not enough to create a rewarding experience for viewers. There’s the beginning of a drama which opens a conversation about society’s relationship with death but it gets much too lost along the way to achieve it.

Verdict: ✯✯

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