By Chuck Wilson
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In pre-made molds, I dont know how to create myself, softly sings a character in João Pedro Rodriguess 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. Rodriguess three features, all on view at BAMcinémateks 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), Rodriguess bold first feature, tracks the nocturnal prowlings of Sergio (non-pro Ricardo Meneses), a homo garbage collector in Lisbonthe 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, Rodriguess 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 Pedros 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 shes carrying Pedros babybefore assuming his body. Odetes delusions are matched by heartbroken Ruis own crippling despair, as he self-medicates with booze, pills, steam-room fellatio, and repeated viewings of Breakfast at Tiffanys. These two may be crazy, but Rodrigues doesnt judge. At first horrified by Odetes actions, Rui discovers only she can salve his pain. As souls and genders transmigrate, the two come togetherbut in the sexual position you least expect.
Transcending ones biologyor notis the central focus of To Die Like a Man(2009), the directors richest, most ambitious work (voted the Best Undistributed Film in last years Voice Film Critics Poll, and recently picked up by Strand). Middle-aged trannie Tonia (Fernando Santos), Lisbons 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 Dees 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 Id like to live in the plural/The singular is worse than bad. Rodrigues agrees and gives us more to choose from.
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