"There are no secrets; only shame."—Tonia.
After competing in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, To Die Like A Man (Morrer como um homem, 2009) had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is being featured in the World Cinema Now sidebar at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF).
David Hudson gathered the decidedly mixed reviews from Cannes for The Daily @ IFC (Melissa Anderson, Artforum; Matt Bochenski, Little White Lies; Leslie Felperin, Variety; Jonathan Romney, Screen). He followed through and posted reviews from the New York Film Festival (NYFF) on The Auteurs Daily (Andrew Chan, Reverse Shot; Vadim Rizov, The Greencine Daily; Ed Gonzalez, Slant; David Fear, Time Out New York; Manohla Dargis, The New York Times).
In his Cannes dispatch to The Auteurs, Daniel Kasman opined it would be a "major injustice" if To Die Like A Man would fail to be scheduled at festivals with the frequency of Broken Embraces. Such has not proven to be the case, however. Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Vienna and AFI have all featured the film after Cannes, and now Palm Springs has scheduled it in their World Cinema Now sidebar. "With its vitality and its composure," Kasman summarized at Cannes, "this is the kind of movie that Pedro Almodóvar should be making." Also at The Auteurs, from NYFF Glenn Kenney confirmed that mileage varies with regard to the film and from November's Viennale Gabe Klinger dispatched: "The combination of folkloric elements and the contemporary situation of a transsexual give the film its distinctive force and elevate Tonia and Rosário from potentially sad figures into glorious depictions, each as richly and lovingly carved out as a religious icon in Caravaggio. Both the Baby Dee and fado songs are presented in their integrity, which just goes to show the viewer how serious Rodrigues is in his intent. A lesser filmmaker would have chopped the scenes by a third, thus only giving a fleeting or touristic view rather than allowing for the possibility to feel as though one had lived through this story." When he caught the film at NYFF, Village Voice's J. Hoberman extolled To Die Like A Man was "a deep and fabulously sad fable, as well as an example of lyrical, playful, unpredictable filmmaking." At Culture Catch, Brandon Judell quoted Sigmund Freud: "Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, in contrast to men who are incapable of pure love and must at all times mix love and hate in their object relations"; a psychological theme he feels is threaded throughout Rodrigues's films. "But often when least expected, Rodrigues opts for the highly comic and then the surreal, creating what might just be the trippiest film released this year, with several of the most delicious transvestites around being truly absurd. Who knew? Drag and Death, a match made in heaven."
Myself, I caught the film in Toronto where—day after day of catching one adequate film after another—To Die Like A Man stood out as a uniquely energized and distinct vision, strange and special. I had to agree with Jason Anderson at Toronto's Eye Weekly that To Die Like A Man is a "searing melodrama with moments of great formal audacity."
My reactions are not for the spoiler-wary! In his most recent vision, Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues has staged some uneasy equations. The film begins with a close-up of a soldier's face applying camouflage paint. You hear the voice of another soldier—who you will later learn is Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), the son of drag queen Tonia (Fernando Santos)—complimenting his friend on how he looks, adding some finishing touches to his lids and cheeks. The parallel to how women apply their daily war paint is obvious and these militarized men are tainted by a suggestion of femininity. They break away from their patrol to wander AWOL in the night. Zé Maria leans his feminized friend against a tree, pushes down his pants and spitfucks him hard. At this point, you realize this is not your father's war movie. Their lust satiated, the two soldiers continue exploring this dark enchanted forest of the night that they have entered. They come across a house brightly lit in the darkness wherein two men dressed as women are singing at the piano. The sodomized soldier suggests candidly to Zé Maria that perhaps his father knows these two? Zé Maria hardens, mutters, "My father is dead" and shoots his friend in the chest. Rarely has a spit-stiff dick and a rifle penetrated flesh with such enraged and internalized homophobia.
This violent act initiates To Die Like A Man's portrait of transgendered Tonia, a veteran drag queen in Lisbon circles whose life has begun to unravel. The drag queens are getting younger and more competitive. Audiences want a different style of performance. Her son Zé Maria has become a deserter and a murderer and her boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David) is pressuring her to have a sex change operation. Her silicone breast implants have poisoned her body and she is dying of cancer. Sometimes it's just not worth waking up in the morning. In order to forgive and be forgiven for the slights endured over a long life as a drag queen performer, Tonia devolves her body back into a male form and seeks reconciliation with her estranged son, even if it be by way of dementia.
Rodrigues is expected to attend the PSIFF screening. This is true value added as he is a wholly engaging personality who I had the good fortune to interview in Toronto. Of related interest is Johnny Ray Huston's Cinema Scope essay "Double 'O' Heaven: The Vertigo Pop and Phantom Desires of João Pedro Rodrigues", which provided me some of my first working language to appreciate this Portuguese maverick's films more fully. (Reviewed at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival; 09/09.)
Cross-published on Twitch.