CAPSULE: TO DIE LIKE A MAN [MORRER COMO UM HOMEM] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: João Pedro Rodrigues

FEATURING: Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida, Chandra Malatitch

PLOT: A conflicted pre-op transsexual drag queen lives with a suicidal junkie.

Still from To Die Like a Man (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I originally wrote: “it’s in the weird ballpark, but Man would need radical surgery to become the poignantly bizarre gender fairy tale it dreams of being.”  As discussed in the comments below, the version of the film I saw was not the version the director intended; but, the film I watched wasn’t quite strange enough to make it onto the List, and restoring the author’s vision would only make it less weird.

COMMENTS:  Funny story.  It turns out that To Die Like a Man isn’t nearly as annoying as I thought it was.  One of the first notes I jotted down in my initial viewing of the film read “telepathic commandos?”  This is because the film opens with a scene of two men in camouflage in the woods staking out a house occupied by two men in drag.  The soldiers speak to each other and their lips move, but there’s no sound; we read their conversation in subtitles.  It seemed like a curiously weird way to start the film, but the silent dialogue continued through the film’s entire two-hour plus running time; we can hear sounds in the background, we can hear it when characters sing or sob, but when they speak—nothing.  Although we’re accustomed to reading titles in foreign or silent movies, to hear birds singing and leaves rustling, see an actor’s lips moving, and yet be banned from hearing their words proves far more frustrating and irritating than you would think.  It robs the actors of half their expressiveness and inhibits our bonding with their characters.

I assumed the silence was an alienating technique designed to put us inside the estranged worldview of Tonia, the confused pre-op protagonist.  But, it turns out there was a simpler explanation for the motif  that I hadn’t thought of.  As it turns out, someone botched the preparation of the digital version I saw via Netflix’s streaming service so that the dialogue track was completely missing.  Oops.  For that reason, I can’t really give To Die Like a Man a fair hearing; it should actually earn a grade of “incomplete.”

I’m embarrassed about not realizing this was a technical issue on my first screening of the film, but in my defense, there is enough strangeness on display here to make it credible that the director would add another experimental gambit on top.  There’s that prologue with the mysterious soldiers hunting drag queens in the woods.  Then, one of the infantrymen turns out to be Tonia’s long lost homophobic son.  Not to mention the subplot where Tonia, the conflicted crossdresser, and his/her suicidal junkie boyfriend find themselves lost in the woods and come across the very same transsexual gingerbread house—where the happily femme inhabitants take them on a nighttime snipe hunt.  If those bizarre narrative elements aren’t enough, then consider the fact that director Rodrigues sometimes drains the color out of the film and changes it to a red/pink monochrome scheme, proving that he’s not above flippant formal experimentation.

Even without the audio track, what can be gleaned of Man‘s story is a mixed bag of originality and cliché.  Even if you haven’t seen a lot of tragic drag queen movies (and I haven’t), the entire dynamic of the aging performer with the worthless addict boyfriend to whom she’s hopelessly devoted and the younger rival who’s slowly displacing her in the audience’s esteem feels awfully familiar.  The idea of the desperate AWOL son forced to hide out with the transvestite father he despises holds promise, but the possible plot line is introduced and then sidelined.  On the other hand, the scenes in the “magical forest” are mysteriously metaphorical, and the weirdest fun you’ll have in a mildly surreal drag queen movie this year.

Perhaps the most unexpectedly brave thing about Man, however, is how it resists the temptation to turn into a rote plea for tolerance.  Tonia is no simple paragon of transgendered virtue: she is catty and paranoid, and her self-destructive devotion to the worthless Rosario is more masochistic and pathetic than admirable.  He/she is also deeply religious, and hesitant about going through with irreversible surgery.  A psychological hermaphrodite, he can’t decide whether he really is a woman, and is skeptical about whether he actually can change his sex.  By staying true to Tonia’s abiding ambivalence about his decision to live as a woman—never giving him that easy moment of psychological triumph—the character remains a sympathetic, confused living person, and is never reduced to a symbolic pawn in the game of gender politics.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a mysterious, fabulously sad fable about the final months of a fado-singing, pooch-pampering drag diva…”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

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