By Don Simpson | August 27, 2011
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
Writers: João Pedro Rodrigues, Rui Catalão, João Rui Guerra da Mata
Starring: Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Chandra Malatitch, Cindy Scrash
Masks and makeup are often used to disguise one’s true self and in Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues’ (The Phantom, Two Drifters) To Die Like A Man, some characters desire to be someone different while others want to hide from reality. Rodrigues’ narrative revolves around the existential quagmire in which a pre-operative transsexual named Tonia (Fernando Santos) is hopelessly stuck. When Tonia is told by a doctor, “nothing is discarded, everything is turned into something else,” we know this dialog is referring to much more than the origami-like process of re-purposing Tonia’s penis into a vagina. How can anything in To Die Like A Man be taken at face value when the characters’ faces [and genders] are blurred and/or transformed?
Tonia is an aging Lisbon drag queen who is seriously contemplating a sex change operation in order to appease Rosário (Alexander David), her significantly younger, junkie boyfriend. The nightclub for which Tonia has been the main attraction for decades no longer has any interest in her and Tonia’s breast implants have begun to leak blood and silicone. All the while, Tonia’s estranged son — Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) — seeks asylum with Tonia after committing a hate crime. In other words, Tonia has a lot to worry about. The stress becomes too much for Tonia, so she and Rosário take a road trip into the country where they discover a couple of spiritually-centered drag queens.
Set in the late 1980s, To Die Like A Man plays with the bold bright colors of the decade to create an unnatural environment for its thespians to perform within. Rodrigues then tosses in some seemingly random musical elements — some of which are downright experimental — to make the narrative seem all that less real. My favorite example of this is a Todd Haynes-esque scene in which the action freezes, a red filter drenches the images, and Baby Dee’s “Calvary” haunts the soundtrack. The scene has no narrative purpose other than to visually capture a very specific mood and it comes as close to brilliant as To Die Like A Man gets.
Rodrigues intelligently discusses gender roles and behavior, as well as the definition(s) of gender (is it defined physically or mentally?). To Die Like A Man in not necessarily a “queer” film; in fact, Rodrigues’ film is one of the few in the annals of cinema history to portray the existential crisis of transgender people in a manner that should be inoffensive to most audiences. Unfortunately, the overly-methodical [read: slow] pacing of To Die Like A Man may turn more people away from this film than the film’s content.
To Die Like A Man was recently released on DVD in the United States by Strand Releasing.