Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues has carved out a niche in contemporary queer cinema over the past ten years with a trio of confrontational, subversive features. After completing “The Phantom” in 2000, Rodrigues continued his rise with the Cannes Directors Fortnight entry “Two Drifters” in 2005, and reached the pinnacle of his still-young career with 2009’s “To Die Like a Man.”
Although it played at Cannes that year and eventually found U.S. distribution, “To Die Like a Man” only now arrives Stateside, long after Portugal submitted it as the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It took some time, but “To Die Like a Man” deserves your attention for showcasing a filmmaker with the capacity for bold narrative trickery that doesn’t come at the expense of emotional investment.
Heralded as “Queer Cinema’s Phantom Menace” by the Village Voice when he received a career retrospective at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek last fall, Rodrigues has certainly haunted the genre for some time. But the revelation of “To Die Like a Man” is not simply that it’s a good gay movie. The story of aging Lisbon drag queen Tonia (Fernando Santos) looking back at her career, contemplating a sex change operation and eventually facing death, skillfully channels the melodrama while at the same time deconstructing it. Rodrigues’s screenplay, replete with musical numbers and other experimental tangents, tunnels inside the psyche of a solemn character’s immovable identity crisis and develops a universally moving core.
Set in the late 1980s, Tonia’s crisis unravels slowly, steeped in the details of her existence. Her young junkie boyfriend urges her to undergo the operation, just as her estranged son pops out of the wilderness seeking shelter for committing a selfish hate crime. Meanwhile, the nightclub Tonia has dominated for decades no longer sees her as its prized act. Only her dogs continue to look at her without questioning what she wants for herself.
For its first hour, “To Die Like a Man” explores these ingredients of Tonia’s life with disquieting, humorless suspense: Will she cave to pressure and finish her long-delayed sexual transition? “You had twenty years to convince other people,” an old friend says. “Time to convince yourself.”
Unfortunately, time is one resource Tonia no longer has. As silicone begins dripping from her breast implants like bloodied milk, the conflicted drag queen takes her boyfriend and heads to the hills to clear her head, and suddenly the movie moves to a new level of stylistic involvement. Visiting a likeminded pal in the woods, Tonia joins her in the wilderness for a fantastical hunting expedition. (Fans of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” will find some interesting parallels here with the intrusion of otherworldly allegorical developments.)
The group pauses and the screen becomes drenched in red; transgender artist Baby Dee’s “Calvary” plays on the soundtrack, practically commenting on the dreamlike inaction (“wake up and weep,” she sings). Rodrigues uses moments like these to explore Tonia’s destiny on a purely abstract level, then brings the story back down to earth with a reinforced sentimentality. To be sure, Tonia’s fate is viscerally unsettling – the plight of a damaged soul literally coming apart at the seams – but “To Die Like a Man” has a lot more going on beneath the surface.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although likely to attract interest from those interested in queer cinema who missed it on the festival circuit, “To Die Like a Man” is probably too odd for mass acclaim, but it’s enough of an accomplishment to embolden Rodrigues’s existing reputation.
criticWIRE grade: A-
“To Die Like a Man” opens for an exclusive engagement at the IFC Center on Friday, April 8th before expanding to Los Angeles.