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Review: Art of the Real Doc ‘Castanha’ Is a Dazzling Gay Character Study

Review: Art of the Real Doc 'Castanha' Is a Dazzling Gay Character Study

is a line spoken twice by actor/subject João Carlos Castanha in the Davi
Pretto’s dazzling character study, “Castanha,” about “an actor without his make
up…counts for nothing as soon as he stops representing something else.” It’s a
canny metaphor for the film and the title character, a Brazilian gay man who
lives with his mother (Celina Castanha), and works as an actor and drag emcee
as local gay clubs. Castanha seems to only feel alive when he is performing.

film opens with an arresting image of the title character, naked and bloody,
walking gingerly down an empty street. While it could very likely be a scene
from a horror film shoot that Castanha might appear in as an actor, Pretto (via
an email exchange with producer Sandro Fiorin) insisted it was not, “It was a dream [Pretto] had,
while writing the script, after many sittings with Castanha himself. It
represents [the] entire film in one single shot: death, AIDS, solitude, fear,
the process of giving yourself away, naked (of everything) from an actor person
to the director.”

This curious introduction
helps draw viewers into Castanha’s world, which is intriguing when he is
performing, and no less so when he is not.

In his daily
life, Castanha spends time with elderly mother, who fusses about her drug-addicted
grandson, Marcelo. Nightly, Castanha goes off to a club to don drag and become
Maria Helena Castanha, the hostess with “beauty, sensuality, malice and
perfume.” It is pleasurable to see Castanha in his element, lipsynching, generating
laughs dishing about the club’s beefy bare-assed dancers, and cracking wise
about penis size. In another performance, on stage in a theater, he is
heartbreaking talking about how long it has been since he has held someone’s
hand, been hugged, kissed, or asked to dance. It is not too great a leap to
think that the actor speaks from experience, even though he has an aborted
romantic tryst in “Castanha.”

stage, Castanha is no less candid. He admits he is crazy about cinema and as a
spectator he used to see the same film (Alan Parker’s “Bugsy Malone”) five
times in a row. While this passion likely fueled his desire to become an actor,
he is relegated to small roles on camera, and supporting parts on stage. The
actor’s quiet despair is palpable, it is what makes him both sympathetic and

is fascinating here is seeing Castanha so “on” while performing, but so
contemplative when he is “off.” Chats with his mother are tender—as when she
confesses to worrying about her son, waiting up each night for him to return
home. Likewise, when Castanha discusses his ex, who has died (from AIDS; this
is implied, but never stated), it is a poignant moment, underscoring Castanha’s
own aging and HIV+ status.

and fiction intertwine and sometimes blur as when Castanha has a discussion
with his “phantom” ex, or when Pretto juxtaposes Celina watching a protest in
Sao Paulo on TV with a military-clad performer in one of the gay clubs. Things
get all too real in a subplot involving Castanha arranging to have Marcelo
beaten up so as not to steal or beg for money for drugs.

can at times be obtuse or oblique—e.g, the unexplained opening sequence—but
such little mysteries are part of the film’s charm. This is not a reality TV
showcase of some vapid performer; it is a revealing and probing examination
into how a gay man ekes out a life under difficult conditions.

“Castanha” plays at the “Art of the
Real” series Saturday, April 19 at 9:00 pm at the Francesca Beale Theater (FBT)
with an encore presentation Wednesday, April 23 at 5:00 pm also at the FBT
Filmmaker Davi Pretto will be doing a Q&A at the  April 19 show.

M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and
Interviews, and a contributor to Gay
City News, Philadelphia Gay News and
other queer alternative weeklies.

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