Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
The title refers to correspondence Diego has with a young Hindu boy he meets in the treatment center. The most fantastical elements in My Hindu Friend involve Diego and the boy seemingly reenacting films or creating their own at Diego’s direction, all within the bounds of the hospital walls. We’re never quite let in on whether these scenes are simply depictions of their conversations, but Babenco communicates that the importance of their relationship lies in the exchange of stories. One of the film’s least-fantastical moments, conversely, also comes via a note from Diego’s friend, who tells him that he “never forgot your stories.”
Taken as a whole, My Hindu Friend finds good company amongst other self-portraits by directors and writers who, for better or worse, have found some measure of fame while attempting to create meaningful art. It carries the sense of finality found in Huston’s The Dead or Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, only strengthened once you learn these were the final films by their respective creators. Hindu perhaps shares most kinship with a film that would come out a few years later: Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, one of 2019’s best, also about an ailing director reflecting on his past. Both are honest to a fault, unafraid to explore anything from the complexities of human sexuality to the banality of being treated as “sick” by friends and family.
In service of that honesty, many stretches of the film find Diego simply answering questions that are posed to him. It seems innocuous at first, doctors checking in on him from time to time to gather information about the man in front of them. Do you need anything? How’s your pain level? How about on a scale of one to ten? The relentless string of questions threatens at times to become overbearing, and maybe we feel as penned in as Diego does when facing such an inquisition.
Eventually, though, in witnessing his varying responses, we can trace Diego’s thoughts and feelings beneath whatever he happens to be saying out loud. At one point a group of socialites visits him as if he’s an animal in a zoo. They grill him about his momentary death and “resurrection”, asking him everything about the afterlife, whether it’s an amicable climate (“it’s hot,” says Diego), whether they accept American Express (“better off bringing cash”), whether God was present (“he was at his AA meeting”). It’s as mischievous as we’ve seen Diego, compellingly fabricating these little lies that seem to satisfy his interrogators. In being asked to tell a story about a miracle, Diego thrives.
Elsewhere, when asked by a clipboard-wielding nurse about himself and the progression of his disease, Diego’s decidedly less vibrant. Any problems with your marriage? Diego says no, though we know differently. How’s your sex life? Diego says it’s fine, though we know differently. Any thoughts of death? Diego says no. But it’s a lie, uncreative and cold, all he can possibly muster in the moment. And it’s here, in his inability to distill his mortality into words, where the cracks in his life begin to widen. His relationships depend on those words, on communication and the same honesty that Diego brings to his art, and so Diego loses those with whom he can no longer connect.
Diego’s real-life analogue may have felt similar regrets during his diagnoses and treatment for lymphatic cancer in the mid-’90s, and if so, My Hindu Friend could be seen as this storyteller’s attempt to communicate in the best way he knows how. Héctor Babenco passed away in 2016, not long after this film was completed, and so My Hindu Friend serves as a poignant swan song for an artist of unflinching honesty and everlasting imagination. We will never forget your stories.