The year in question is 1996, Pablo Pérez’s 30th, and possibly his last. A frustrated poet with HIV who survives on a halfhearted tutoring gig and the occasional check from his aloof dad, he struggles with the titular roman-not-so-à-clef: a diary documenting not only his inescapable loneliness, but also his irreversible decline. Pablo (Juan Minujín) narrates his last-ditch search for true love, or at least a good lay, but his dry spell proves as persistent as his cough. Trolling the personals and seedy porn shows brings only joyless hookups—until he finds a tight-knit clique of friendly sadomasochists who introduce him to the salutary benefits of whips and chains. With the help of a leather daddy who calls himself the Sheriff (Osmar Núñez) and an impossibly hot master-in-training (Javier Van der Couter), he finds his place among Buenos Aires’ s/m underground, and discovers that the only way to get rid of his pain is to eroticize it.
Anahí Berneri’s promising feature debut (based on Pablo Pérez’s autobiographical novel) is at once unsentimental and sympathetic; she evinces rare insight into a gay man’s life and sexuality without cringing, passing judgment, or wallowing in pity. She certainly doesn’t hold back during the brief, intense dungeon scenes. If anything, her lingering close-ups—syringes, fizzing tablets, knife blades, dog collars—fetishize the accoutrements of both sex and disease. Indeed, since Pablo reluctantly starts taking AZT around the same time he finds his inner slave, we can’t tell which course of treatment is the one that’s working: Is it the toxic meds or the bondage and the beatings? As Pablo’s living-dead despondency ignites with hope and lust, Minujín’s understated performance barely registers the difference. Whether he finds love, or even fulfillment, is left tantalizingly unresolved, yet somehow we intuit what keeps him—any of us—alive.