Few foreign films or even American-made indie films take as harsh, deep and subtle a look at the complexities of the lives of gay men than To Die Like a Man. Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues allows his austere film to calmly unfold over the course of more than two hours, employing some distinct artistic flourishes in his story-telling that sometimes takes surreal left turns. Rodrigues produces films sporadically while exploring underground subject matter such as this story about an over-the-hill drag performer struggling with his decision to undergo a sex change. Rodrigues is not a well-known director, and probably will not gain a much larger following than he already has with this daring film but adventurous film lovers will not come away disappointed after experiencing To Die Like a Man.
To Die Like a Man tells its story with little exposition but with much action and some vivid, at times, disturbing images, sometimes veering a bit too deeply into melodrama for its own good. However, the power of the film works best when it is subtle and patient. Some might complain that it goes on for too long at two hours and 15 minutes, but the film needs long moments of contemplation that ask for the viewer’s attention. It invites understanding and sympathy for the complex variety of perspectives within the various characters that populate the film. A transvestite is not the same as a trans-gender man who is not the same as a gay man and so on. But the film is not this superficial either. It looks at the shades of struggle among the men in the film not only in their sexuality but their toil with existence in general.
The film follows aging drag performer Tonia (Fernando Santos) who is growing ever frustrated with her place as a headliner at a club and is in the process of a sex change, which her body seems to be rejecting. The film makes it apparent that Tonia is undergoing the procedure to please her younger, drug-addled boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David) and not necessarily by her own choice. Meanwhile, Tonia suffers under another dose of pressure when a younger newcomer (Jenni La Rue) threatens to overthrow her as the star at the club. Meanwhile, her son, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch), who is about the age of Rosário, has suddenly returned home from a military life. Zé Maria mysteriously appears inside Tonia’s home and confesses to going AWOL, the reason for which is best left unspoiled in this review, but also figures into the layers of stories associated with the sexuality explored in the movie. Zé Maria holds a begrudging bitterness toward his father and their encounters in the movie never seem to go well, leading to some of the strained melodrama in the movie.
To Die Like a Man is at its most stirring and reflexive, however, during its quieter moments. The most definitive of these happens during an eclipse that turns the image on the screen a brilliant red. During this scene, five of the film’s characters sit nearly motionless in a forest, which happens to be the very same woods Zé Maria had his sexual encounter. During the scene, the full song “Calvary” by underground transgender singer Baby Dee (Support the Independent Ethos, buy her music on Amazon.com) — at a runtime of 4:33 — plays over the scene, which is essentially one steady shot without edits, focused on the nearly motionless characters. The scene is nearly hypnotic in its stillness. The song has a creepy, sad quality not much different from the better known, if still obscure, music of modern indie act Antony and the Johnsons, which happens to be fronted by an openly gay singer. It’s also interesting to note that Dee is in her late fifties, and, by all accounts a successful transgender performer.
During this unassuming yet pivotal scene, Tonia and Rosário take a seat in the woods to seemingly appreciate the eclipse. They are in the company of a pair of transvestites who live nearby, among the dense tress: the confident Maria Bakkar (Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida) and her companion, the homely Paula (Miguel Loureiro). The film’s only announced straight man, Dr. Felgueiras (André Murraças), a friend of Bakkar, joins them. During this one expressive and stylized moment, Rodrigues allows for much to happen by saying so little with his camera.
I think it important to note that Rodrigues shot the film in the boxed-in film ratio of 1.33: 1. So do not expect a full widescreen aspect at the film’s screenings. To Die Like a Man offers an intimate story that comes across fine in this format, as it at times seems to subvert the rules of classical cinematic story-telling. With this movie, Rodrigues is probably destined to stay under the cinephile radar, even in the world and independent film markets, but with To Die Like a Man, Rodrigues shows a supreme talent that unlocks the power of cinema beyond the mundane boundaries many filmmakers prefer to stay within.
To Die Like a Man opens 9:30 p.m. Saturday night (May 28) and plays through Tuesday (May 31) at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, who loaned me a preview screener for the purposes of this review.