Documentary Review — “Babenco: Tell Me When to Die”

As he fusses over close-ups, how the camera frames him, and muses about how he’ll be remembered, Hector Babenco scripts, blocks and produces his “final film.” But he doesn’t direct it.

On the documentary, “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die,” that job belongs to his wife, the actress Bárbara Paz. It’s a lovely, poetic black and white memoir of the director’s career tucked within the last months of his life.

Babenco, director of “Pixote,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Ironweed” and “Carandiru,” died of cancer in 2016. He was 70 years old.

He is a collection of close-ups, tucked in amongst clips from his dozen films, and a mostly disembodied voice, musing over “the end,” making suggestions, mostly in Portugeuse.

“Don’t waste time romanticizing every moment.”

It’s an impressionistic portrait, tidbits of autobiography, little snippets of audience Q&As, a little documented South American acting career that predated his directing, revealing that he was imprisoned in Spain in his younger days, which explains his fascination with and unique grasp of the mental journeys one takes in confinement. His three greatest films had prison settings.

His last one, “My Hindu Friend,” had Willem Dafoe playing a version of Babenco, a famous filmmaker facing death, acting out his death bed “finale” — pulling out a ventilator and singing “Cheek to Cheek.”

With 1981’s “Pixote,” a film that single-handedly revived Brazil’s cinema, the Argentinian-born filmmaker invited comparisons to the greats of Europe — Bunuel and Visconti.

There’s even a genuine grimace of a moment for film fans here, Barbara Streisand reading out the august list of nominees for Best Director that year, with Babenco up for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” up against John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, Peter Weir and the winner — for “Out of Africa” — Sydney Pollack. How’s that “holding up?”

Babenco was first diagnosed with cancer back then, “four to six months to live,” he boasts. He did “Ironweed” with Streep, Nicholson and Tom Waits. He went into the jungle to film “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” and he lived another thirty years.

This isn’t a straightforward biography, but “Tell Me When I Die” is how many a filmmaker of an artistic bent would love to go out and hope to be remembered — with a little philosophy, a little sadness and a smile of reminiscence.

MPA Rating: Unrated, nudity, smoking

Cast: Hector Babenco, Barbara Paz, Willem Dafoe

Credits: Directed by Bárbara Paz, script by  Maria Camargo and Bárbara Paz. A Taskovski Films release.

Running time: 1:15

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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