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.