Filmska poema u stilu Chrisa Markera.
Macao se nikad ne zaustavlja, on je arhitektonska džungla.
A provocative cinematic poem in the tradition of the late Chris Marker, "The Last Time I Saw Macao" valiantly attempts to dissect an entire metropolitan history. Perhaps because it aims so big, not every fragment connects, but Portuguese co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata unload an intriguing collection of attitudes, themes and memories based around a largely effective combination of nostalgia and colonialist regret.
While Rodrigues's previous film, "To Die Like a Man" (which was art directed by Da Mata) contained plenty of stylistic indulgences, it looks fairly conventional when compared with "The Last Time I Saw Macao," which followed the directors on a voyage to the former Portuguese colony, marking Rodrigues' first time visiting the city since his childhood 30 years earlier.
The filmmakers couch their story in a playful nod to film noir, proclaiming that an old friend named Candy has contacted them about having fallen into trouble with ominous forces. Over the course of the movie, Candy emerges as a lavish abstraction of Rodrigues' colorful impressions of Macao in contrast to the complicated realities lurking in its crevices.
But first it sets the stage with a lovely prologue that roots the movie in the cinematic fantasy it proceeds to deconstruct. As Candy in her only onscreen appearance, "To Die Like a Man" actress Cindy Scrash delivers a lip-synched rendition of "You Kill Me," the showstopper performed by Jane Russell in Josef Von Sternbergh's 1952 noir, which provides a key reference point as Rodrigues and Da Mata pick apart the fantasy of Orientalism associated with the region to reveal the city's modern characteristics. As Scrash sings, a group of brightly colored tigers tussle behind her, providing a key reference point throughout the movie with no less symbolic value than the felines seen throughout Marker's "The Case of the Grinning Cat."
As with Marker, a first-person narration guides the story through its scenery changes. Rodrigues explains in the opening minutes that his return to Macao has been prompted by a troubling email from Candy, but from there he deviates to discuss the city's poetic rhythms in quantifiable terms. "Macao never stops," he says, describing it as "an architectural jungle" and then promptly getting lost in it. Audiences may experience a similar sensation as Rodrigues and Da Mata wander through the cityscape on Candy's trail.
There are several layers of interrogation at work here: a documentary approach to exploring the city's current identity, the lyrical nature of its historical inquiry and a dreamlike methodology that holds the entire structure together. Each ingredient is systematically laid out in separate prologues before the title card finally appears. Having established their mission, the filmmakers shift to an inexplicable shootout marked by lengthy pauses in a ruinous area of Macao, drawing out the idea of a dangerous world shrouded by a veil of time. The movie follows that pathway for remainder of its runtime.
The collection of sounds and images from Macao, which the filmmakers find far more alienating than they initially expect, generates such an alluring flow that it gets increasingly distracting whenever the directors deflect to the allegorical kidnapping tale with passing references to the missing Candy's fate. Nevertheless, the notion of Candy as a once-potent memory fading into the sober truths of the present eventually forms a cohesive dialogue. Referencing Von Sternberg again, Rodrigues recalls the panties Russell attempts to fling overseas in "Macao" and wonder what might have happened had Robert Mitchum not caught them: Would this imaginative record of the past washed ashore in the real Macao? It's a curiously provocative question that, like this multidimensional work, defies any precise answer.- Caitlin Hughes www.filmschoolrejects.com/
There is no such thing as “pure documentary.” While classified as “non-fiction,” documentaries ultimately form narratives depending on how the director chooses to cut the footage together. In The Last Time I Saw Macao, co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, conversely, draw attention to a fictional framework, a man searching for his troubled friend in Macao. However, this framework opens up to an honest documentary portrait of a city. Last Time I Saw Macao does indeed find a clever fashion in which to photograph its eponymous city, but sometimes lacks a certain ability to entertain.
The film begins with a rather compelling opening sequence. Transgendered woman Candy (Cindy Scrash, star of Rodrigues’ To Die Like A Man) lip-synchs to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” from Josef Von Sternbergh’s film Macao (1952) in a direct homage to both the film and the city (many references are made to Von Sternbergh’s film throughout). Behind her is a gate harboring orange tigers, almost neon in the dark. This sequence prefaces the film as if it is about to be a film noir, especially given the forthcoming backstory: an unseen Portuguese narrator comes to Macao after receiving an email from Candy, who tells him that she is in trouble with the wrong sort of people. Throughout the film, the narrator, remaining faceless, leaves unanswered voicemails and emails for Candy and searches for her all over the desolate city.
While this story is used as a sort of framing device, it is almost tangential to what appears onscreen, which is mostly like a series of postcards dedicated to the strange city. The film’s images are instead shadows of the narration – nary a person’s face is filmed and scuffles are heard when there are supposed to be fights – but you never quite see what’s narrated. This strange criminal world is a backdrop for this love letter to Macao, a city that has undergone the transition from Portuguese to Chinese rule, and that experienced a dual personality between being the “Las Vegas of the East” with its many casinos to the desolate outskirts of the city that seem to be inhabited with more stray dogs than people.
Much of the film goes without narration at all, and is merely filmed stills of the city, complete with any ambient noises that the city brings forth.
The used-up Candy is almost a metaphor for the fading relics of its colonial Portuguese rule. She is Portuguese in a foreign land, and gets swallowed up by the seedy cracks and crevices of the city and its more unsavory elements. Like Candy, damaged and forgotten elements of the city’s history, like nearly abandoned Portuguese restaurants and piles of broken statues, are given extra attention by the camera to highlight the city’s history, as well as its disrepair.
The directors clearly never had the intention for their film to sell out multiplexes, and likewise, they don’t make the attempt here to create a film for entertainment purposes. This is definitely more of an artistic endeavor in the spirit of Chris Marker. It is a meditation on a place, driven by a first-person narration. Though it definitely would be more watchable if it were more of a narrative and not a travelogue. The film’s opening, for instance, is a double-edged sword in this way, because it makes you yearn for a pulpy film noir, and that is definitely not what this film is.
Nevertheless, the film does seem to succeed in what it sets out to do. The narrative pulls together the chronicle of Macao in a clever format, and the film is shot exquisitely, bringing out the faded beauty and seedy underbelly of the city with a certain reverence for what the city has been through. While this film will not likely please the masses, it is an achievement in blending documentary and fiction, as well as for photographing a city in such a great scope.
The Upside: The directors skillfully blend film noir, documentary, and travelogue – and paint Macao in a foreboding yet reverential light.
The Downside: The film’s overall “art film” status makes it a tough watch for entertainment’s sake.
On the Side: There was over 150 hours of footage shot in the process of making this film.
|The Macao Gesture |
Cristina Álvarez López
Like the hero of this film, I too had to wait until the final credits to understand why I have come to this city for the first time. After several days of immersing myself in a festival where cinema seems a minor concern for many of the films, The Last Time I Saw Macao emits an intense, powerful light – a glow similar to that minimalist image of the Apocalypse that the film manages to convey with the merest, briefest, photographic overexposure. (1)
I don't try to imitate reality. If I emulate something, it’s the imaginary. I’d be happy if you described my films as documentaries of the imaginary. (2)
1. These are the first words I wrote about The Last Time I Saw Macao, drawn from the Lisbon diary in which I recorded my impressions of the people I met there, and the films I saw. The entry is dated 25 October, 7.44pm.
2. From Isabelle Regnier’s interview with Resnais, Le Monde (25 September 2012).
How to approach Macao? How to film this place, how to talk about it? One option would have been to go in search of an encounter with the secret city (supposing it exists) that lies buried beneath the mythology. In the documentary domain, this would be a safe path – affording its makers more awards and prestige, and fewer complications. However, it is the film’s desire to stray from this path, its refusal to become the ‘definitive documentary on Macao’, that makes it a truly worthwhile, original proposition. The filmmakers choose a route that is – contrary to how it may seem – ultimately more truthful than the simple, material actuality of their snatched, everyday images. The basic idea is to bring about a confrontation between this camera-reality and the city’s imaginary. Maybe some part of this imaginary is indeed comprised of clichés, of information that we have heard or read in dozens of reviews of the film, of touristic slogans that (channeled through cinema, literature and advertising) try to sum up the spirit of the city in one pithy phrase … But, instead of renouncing all that, the directors embrace it, use it as the raw material for their work. There is nothing facile, vague or convenient about their decision. It is a completely thought-out, enabling point of departure that avoids anything conventional, and gives the film its unique character.
Screened in the Official Section of a festival like Doclisboa dedicated to documentary cinema, The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata compels us to once again face this question of the borders between documentary and fiction – borders that, today, already seem so outdated, but are perhaps not really so when we see a film like this one, returning to pose problems about its own status and its relationship to these categories. The film is constructed upon a narrative line that is wholly invented and fictional; but it is composed, in large part, of documentary images of the city of Macao. However, this is not a case of the typical exploitation practiced by fiction when it confidently appropriates, at its convenience, the materials or aesthetics of documentary to give greater veracity to its images. What we have here is, rather, the opposite case, since the plot is no mere excuse to grant coherence to a series of scattered images, or coat them with a seductive patina. With respect to this, it is interesting to observe that the film’s approximation of noir is truly unique. It is not a matter of merely updating the genre’s codes, or of approaching it from a neoclassical perspective. Here, what triggers the film’s atmosphere, what determines the tone it adopts, what breathes life into the genre, is what these two directors see in the city and then project onto their images. This is the defining gesture of The Last Time I Saw Macao, and the notion which is crucial to understanding how it works.
In the case of Rodrigues – whose remarks intermittently dot the central narration – this vision is a product of the memory associated with cinema, with the films shot there, and with the tales told by his companion; in the case of Guerra da Mata – who lived in Macao as a child – it has to do with the tricks of a fabulating memory, with the traps laid by childhood recall. When, thirty years later, he returns to the place where he grew up, now become the main character in his own film, he meets an elusive city, a city he knows but which escapes him: lost in its streets, nobody understands his language, his questions are met only with silence, windows and doors are closed, and eyes suspiciously follow his movements. It is, in short, a city that conspires against him, just like Vienna conspired against Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). And, like that character, the protagonist of The Last Time I Saw Macao will also end up discovering that he is no more than just another pawn in a complex mechanism.
Like the city that serves as its inspiration, the film has a complex, labyrinthine plot that, most likely, the spectator can unravel only after several viewings. The narration – carried by the deep voice of Guerra da Mata, giving the tale a distinctive and potent hardboiled touch – offers an account of the narrator’s fruitless search for his friend Candy; while taking us through the city, he digresses on the history and memories it arouses. You really need to be carried away on the river of this voice in order to properly understand and appreciate the movie: a voice whose cadence returns us to the Golden Age of film noir, where protagonists’ monologues were likewise built upon this same mix of poetic and ironic reflections, and where socio-political commentary was never absent but was not an end in itself – but rather, part and parcel of a more elaborate, complex structure.
Without a doubt, among the most beautiful qualities of The Last Time I Saw Macao is the generosity with which it displays its love for cinema. In its final detour toward apocalyptic science fiction, the film traces a connection with the concerns of a number of contemporary works that also revolve around the theme of the end of the world or the end of humanity. At the same time, the film is the heir, in many respects, of Chris Marker’s œuvre. First, because it is a film about memory, and about places that allow the incorporation of certain forms of travel-diary into the narrative; but also because it puts into practice what Marker once explained in Letter from Siberia (1957): that the commentary placed over images determines our perception of them. That is why, in The Last Time I Saw Macao, any apparently innocent shot from any corner of the city whatsoever (a door, stairs, a restaurant façade …) seems suspect, charged with a sinister aura. The pale cats and the reflections from Marker in Sunless (1983) also come to mind, as we observe this mix of fetish or souvenir images that the city displays (tigers, windows full of wristwatches, photos of Mao, Chinese lotus flowers, Astro Boy …). And the other Marker film that is evoked by the internal construction here is, of course, La Jetée (1962), with which it shares a science fiction premise, a plot that turns upon the revelation of its protagonist’s fate and, above all, a relation between image and voice-over narration. Although it is not here a matter of still frames, many shots in The Last Time I Saw Macao are static, held long enough to stir the curiosity of a viewer who – uncertain of the connection between what is seen and what is heard – begins to search for the mystery that is held frozen in these images.
Like a carrier that contains the cargo of its own History of Cinema, The Last Time I Saw Macao gives us flashes of many films to which, at times, we find direct allusion, in the form of quotations – or, more usually, as subliminal influences coursing underneath the images. Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952) is a crucial reference here; Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata take from it (among other things) the description of the city that hovers over the entire work: ‘Macao has two faces: one calm and open; the other veiled and secret’. But it is another, more wonderful Sternberg film, The Shanghai Gesture (1941), that – with its web of perverse relationships, its constant reference to Oriental rituals and customs and, above all, the charismatic figure of ‘Mother’ Gin Sling – appears to cast its spell over the images of The Last Time I Saw Macao, even to the extent of offering us the hypothetical reverse shot of what the Portuguese film does not show.
After all, one of the most prominent mise en scène strategies of Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s film is based on the game between what is visible and what is off-screen. Every important event in it – from the multiple murders to the apocalyptic finale – are treated in a minimalist, anti-spectacular way. The approach refers both to B movies (particularly those of Jacques Tourneur) and to Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). The Last Time I Saw Macao fragments the bodies of its characters, and never shows us their faces. Its terrain is wholly that of the insert: hands, feet, footprints, pistols, a cage – reminiscent of the mysterious box in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – that passes from hand to hand, without us knowing what it contains. When Candy disappears, we do not see what the kidnappers do with her: we hear her screams, and gunfire – sound is our only guide. Afterward, all that we have to help us reconstruct the scene is a shot of a shoe in the middle of the street. A shot, incidentally, that is the same as in the fascinating, previous short by these filmmakers, Alvorada Vermelha (Red Dawn, 2011) – the fantasy element of which suddenly seems enlarged and recontextualised when put into relation with The Last Time I Saw Macao.
Perhaps the best description of the operation performed by The Last Time I Saw Macao is synthesised in its opening scene: a musical number in which Candy mimes to a playback of ‘You Kill Me’ – as sung by Jane Russell in Macao – while, on the other side of a fence, several tigers prowl. It is a prophetic prologue (which makes particular sense in a work where prophecy not only plays a crucial plot role, but is also fulfilled), immediately cueing us to the process followed by the filmmakers in shaping the material of their film. Taken as a hieroglyph, the scene offers a series of signs that demand to be decrypted. The fact that a transsexual – Cindy Scrash from Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009) – has been cast as the transposition of the femme fatale serves as a declaration of intent, no mere caprice. Like her, the film must adapt its image-body to the genre that dwells beneath it. To do so, The Last Time I Saw Macao obliges us to question notions not only of reality and fiction, but also of nature and artifice. If the noir and science fiction casings mask the documentary source of the images in a film that does not believe in the physical reality of things as their absolute truth, we would then have to wonder: is the ultimate function of a mask to hide this reality or, on the contrary, to reveal its most intimate nature?
Originally published in Transit, 15 November 2012: http://cinentransit.com/a-ultima-vez-que-vi-macau/. Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Martin.
João Pedro Rodrigues: Morrer como un homem
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. - Eric Kohn
Transcending Biology, Singing Fados in To Die Like a Man
Portuguese fado makes something wistfully jaunty out of inconsolable loss and so does João Pedro Rodrigues’s third feature, To Die Like a Man—a mysterious, fabulously sad fable about the final months of a fado-singing, pooch-pampering drag diva, first shown here at the 2009 New York Film Festival.
The top performer in a tawdry Lisbon club, Tonia (Fernando Santos) is portly but not unattractive as she totters around on platform shoes or throws a futile star fit to protect her turf—and trademark blond wig—from a statuesque young rival. Warmhearted and superstitiously devout, she frets in equal measure over her heroin-addicted young lover, Rosário (Alexander David), and adored toy terrier, and is additionally stressed when her implacably hostile son, a soldier the same age as Rosário, goes AWOL and turns up at her house. Moreover, Tonia’s breast implants seem to be rotting or at least leaking silicone—although her true malady is surely something more drastic.
Although this surplus of melodrama might have prompted an Almodóvarian frenzy, Rodrigues is neither hysterical nor maudlin. To Die Like a Man is playful, unpredictable, and incongruously verdant. Some have compared Tonia to the tragic transexual in Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, but Rodrigues is a warmer, more relaxed and digressive filmmaker, with a taste for saturated color, frugal effects, and Arabian Nights clutter. (The neue kino director to whom he’s closest is Werner Schroeter, although an early scene in which a prop spider dangles from a tree at sunset is pure Jack Smith.)
Midway through the movie, Tonia and Rosário find themselves in an enchanted forest, where the capricious, impossibly mannered Maria Bakker (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her comically hulking servant (Miguel Loureiro) unapologetically live as women. (Rodrigues has cited Casa Susanna, a found-snapshot collection depicting a late-’50s Catskills cross-dressing retreat, as a style inspiration.) La Bakker vogues about like a silent-movie vamp (while quoting Paul Celan), and leads her guests out to hunt nonexistent snipes under a giant moon. But this utopian moment only reminds Tonia of her melancholy situation and cues the diva to settle her business. “So much work, making Tonia,” she sighs from her hospital bed, having surrendered her blue contact lenses as well as her wig. The title refers to her final wish to be buried in a suit.
To Die Like a Man is richly impoverished, visionary and pragmatic, explicit yet oblique. The opening description of the surgery by which a penis is sliced open to flower as a vagina (demonstrated with an impromptu origami model) may be more informative than you’d wish; the final 20 minutes, as Tonia drifts toward eternity on the waves of her final fado and only on-screen performance, are more plaintive yet affirmative than anything you’ll see this year.
João Pedro Rodrigues's perspective on cinema and life, in a nutshell: All the world's a stage, and everyone in it is a drama queen. As a formalist and provocateur, he falls somewhere between John Waters and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, regarding gutterbrow behavior with a jaundiced, irony-free philosophical rigor. Pity, though, that the Portuguese director should make his premiere at the New York Film Festival big table with what amounts to a sluggish interpretation of Fassbinder's masterpiece In a Year of 13 Moons. Beginning in the woods, with soldiers marching ostensibly toward war but in reality into an act of longed-for sodomy, To Die Like a Man is content to crudely literalize rather than legitimately assess the psychological tumult of its characters, most inanely when Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) breaks into his transvestite father's house and drops a chicken bone, a high heel pump, and a photograph into an aquarium. More objects are buried in the flower garden, and as they're unearthed by the preop Tonia (Fernando Santos) and her junkie boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David), one feels as if the film wasn't made for an audience of filmgoers but rather a classroom of Freud scholars. We understand Tonia to be over-the-hill as a performer, caught in a state of male-female in-betweenness, but we never get a substantial sense of the extent and seriousness of her conflict, let alone her feelings for her son, lover, and friends, or their feelings for her. Back in the woods where her wayward, presumably insecure son offed the soldier he had just hammered, Tonia and Rosário encounter a comically delusional cross-dresser whose house acts as a kind of safety zone for the queerest of the queer. But when the screen turns red as the group goes searching for lightning bugs and Baby Dee's "Cavalry" fills the soundtrack while Rodrigues's camera takes a 360-degree survey of the landscape, the coarsely virtuostic scene feels digressive as opposed to being part of a whole, unexpressive of its character's fantasies, resentments, and frustrated sense of identity. It's not just that To Die Like a Man lacks In a Year of 13 Moons or Querelle's fluidity of style, it never coheres as a narrative—a collage of undigested ideas about what it means to be a man who wants to be a woman. - Ed Gonzalez
João Pedro Rodrigues, O Fantasma
Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Queer Cinema's Phantom Menace
“In pre-made molds, I don’t know how to create myself,” softly sings a character in João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man. The Portuguese director, 44, one of the most daring new talents to emerge in the past decade, has been busy smashing molds himself, invigorating queer narratives while subverting the trappings of genre (like the melodrama and the musical) to explore lust and grief. Rodrigues’s three features, all on view at BAMcinématek’s tribute (plus two shorts), are driven by unforgettable protagonists caught up in their own compulsions, madness, or uncertainty.
Inspired by Louis Feuillade as much as Tom of Finland, O Fantasma (2000), Rodrigues’s bold first feature, tracks the nocturnal prowlings of Sergio (non-pro Ricardo Meneses), a homo garbage collector in Lisbon—the original trash humper?—as he ruts with canine ferocity. This horndog, frequently on all fours with his pooch, sniffs, licks, and pisses to mark his territory, his bestial responses matched by his raw carnal urges. Whether cruising in toilets or suited up in full-body latex, the sex-hungry sanitation worker never stops the hunt; you can practically smell the pheromones emanating from the screen. In between hardcore action, this dangerous top dives further into a dreamlike abyss as XXX meets existentialism.
Though not clad in fetish wear, phantoms also linger in Two Drifters (2005). Its title taken from “Moon River,” Rodrigues’s second film opens with an extreme close-up of necking boyfriends Rui (Nuno Gil) and Pedro (João Carreira), whose one-year-anniversary celebration ends with Pedro’s death in a car crash. But his spirit lingers in Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira), a statuesque roller-skating supermarket price checker who becomes convinced she’s carrying Pedro’s baby—before assuming his body. Odete’s delusions are matched by heartbroken Rui’s own crippling despair, as he self-medicates with booze, pills, steam-room fellatio, and repeated viewings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. These two may be crazy, but Rodrigues doesn’t judge. At first horrified by Odete’s actions, Rui discovers only she can salve his pain. As souls and genders transmigrate, the two come together—but in the sexual position you least expect.
Transcending one’s biology—or not—is the central focus of To Die Like a Man(2009), the director’s richest, most ambitious work (voted the Best Undistributed Film in last year’s Voice Film Critics’ Poll, and recently picked up by Strand). Middle-aged trannie Tonia (Fernando Santos), Lisbon’s reigning drag superstar and a devout Catholic, recalls with horror a doctor demonstrating how one goes from M to F using an origami prop: “He spoke of the sex change as if he w ere filleting a steak.” Slowly being poisoned by the silicone leaking from her breast implants, Tonia must also endure the trials of a junk-addicted boyfriend, a trigger-happy son, and a back-stabbing, wig-stealing rival. Rodrigues completely upends our notions of gender-illusion spectacle: There are no giddy Priscilla- or Hedwig-like sing-alongs; the director keeps the drag-club action strictly backstage. His film offers more sublime musical pleasures instead, its most magical moment taking place in the forest as the characters, bathed in red moonlight, sit quietly while Baby Dee’s “Calvary” plays. So, too, does the director reject the notion of GLAAD-approved, dopey affirmative endings. Her body rebelling against her, Tonia fights back, toggling between the gender she chose and the one she was born with: “I lived like a woman. I want to die like a man,” she says on her deathbed. Ambivalently living in the space between either/or, Tonia, singing from beyond the grave, demands multitudes: “Oh, how I’d like to live in the plural/The singular is worse than bad.” Rodrigues agrees and gives us more to choose from