Sunday, November 20, 2011

To Die Like A Man (Morrer como um homem)

From the war-paint-as-make-up opening, followed by a terrific sex-change origami demonstration, to the musical afterlife-view finale, Portugese director João Pedro Rodrigues’ third feature glides smoothly and unhurriedly through the story of aging transvestite Tonia (Fernando Santos), scared of the butchery implied in title’s final transformation, secure in her inner identity, but undeceived by the outer, and slowly dying from the very things that help make her physically what she is (leaking breast implants).

There are moments of stylistic exuberance but barely a hint of camp: Tonia sings quietly to herself on several occasions but we see not a jot of her high-drag cabaret act. Moments of good humour and catty club rivalry dot the melancholy, whilst Rodrigues’s serious approach ranges from distinctly Bressonian hand gestures and intonation, to the anti-spectacular Academy ratio. Tonia has two sons, one biological (Chandra Malatitch), estranged and wayward; the other her young, troubled boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David), to whom she’s devoted even while believing him to be stealing from her to feed his smack habit. He’s also a pretty spiffy dressmaker, and he’s introduced being rescued from an alley by Tonia in a particularly splendid sparkly red number, shimmering like ruby slippers in robe form. An unexpected interlude takes the pair to a quasi-magical forest where they encounter the marvelous Maria Bakker (playing herself), in retreat from the world, poised and elegant in silver-black sparkles and feathered cuffs (and tremendous hair!) In this enchanted place, Baby Dee’s beatific “Calvary” appears on the soundtrack from nowhere, and the film freezes unexpectedly into a red-filtered woodland tableau of inexplicable beauty.

No less beautiful is a late vindication of Rosário, via a back-garden treasure trove, that plays as a poignantly literal passing of Tonia’s life before her eyes. Its ending is inevitable, but the film succumbs to excesses of neither of nobility nor self-pity. As Tonia herself says, there are no secrets, only shame. Her dual nature is hidden from no-one, and her will to undergo the final sex-change speaks to the strength of how she feels herself to be on the inside; despite Rosário’s urgings, she has been reluctant to take the final step, having grown fully into this in-between identity. Now having the vestiges of her femininity stripped from her, however, it would be dishonest to die anything other than like a man. It seems like a very sad ending, in part because the film fails to show us any of the joy that must surely have filled at least part of Tonia’s life, but her final song is apposite, a wish to be plural, the impossible dream that underpins a serious-minded, tender and moving film.

d João Pedro Rodrigues p Maria João Sigalho sc João Pedro Rodrigues, Rui Catalão ph Rui Poças ed João Pedro Rodrigues, Rui Mourão ad João Rui Guerra da Mata cast Fernando Santos, Jenny Larue, Miguel Loureira, Fernando Gomes, Alexander David, Chandra Malatitch, Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida
(2009, Por/Fr, 133m)
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