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.