Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 22, 2009 5:01 pm 
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Dogs, aquariums, killer sons, druggie lovers, and a sex change

You can't help thinking there's a good movie here somewhere. But things get out of hand from the start. Two young soldiers on maneuvers in camouflage outfits have anal sex in the woods. It's too dark to see which is which, but shortly afterward one shoots the other dead, apparently in an extreme form of homosexual panic. That's before the opening titles. But it's a plotline that's largely dropped.

Morrer Como Um Homem, a film from Portugal, is a bizarre patchwork of scenes, some of which resort to spins or whiteouts or extreme blue or red filters, and it doesn't need to do all this, because its account of a would-be transsexual who lives with a young drug addict and shelters her assassin son is quite bizarre enough. And ought to be interesting. And as the drag queen, Tonia, Fernando Santos is watchable. But the 138-minute running time makes this quite another kind of drag. You could easily excise 30 or 40 minutes; but the story line would still ramble too much.

A drag queen who's getting too old and is asked to leave the show. Haven't we seen that before somewhere? That's Tonia. She has competition from a younger black performer, Jenny (Jenni La Rue). That sounds familiar too. The hesitating to get the sex change operation: done. The young druggie lover: done. The haughty ex-drag star met by chance who struts her stuff, reciting German poetry: done.

But despite the familiarity of themes, there's life here. Drag queens are so camera-ready. And Rodriguez has a gift for odd or arresting moments, like the switch blade snapping into a transparent shower curtain, a chicken bone and a high-heeled shoe dropped into the aquarium, a man committing suicide on the beach seen only from behind. There is a welcome willingness to experiment and take risks. Despite the camera tricks being out-there campy, the visuals are generally very nice. Only director Rodrigues keeps killing things by stopping the action for a lengthy song or musical number, or going off on some new tangent and losing the momentum. Or sinking into subject matter that seems too derivative.

I lied: the killer soldier theme isn't completely dropped. He lies waiting for Tonia in her house one night, and turns out to be her long-lost son Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch). Tonia agrees to hide Ze Maria, who destroys her aquarium. But she's more interested in helping her young boyfriend Rosario (Alexander David, who's pretty convincing) stay off drugs. And more than that, she's interested in her little dog.

One or two moments that have nothig to do with AIDS, or Christianity, or sexuality, like the time when Tonia and Rosario wander in a woods and find wild forget-me-nots, seem more natural than anything else. It is possible to care about these people. And wish they were in a better movie.

This will play well to the some specialized LGBT cinema audiences. Jason Anderson of Eye Weekly speaks of "searing melodrama with great moments of formal audacity" and says that Rodrigues' "three features to date are throwbacks to a far more radical era for queer cinema and To Die Like a Man is no less extraordinary than its predecessors."*

Shown as a part of the main slate of the New York Film Festival 2009. In October 2010 Strand Releasing announced that it will open in spring 2011 in US theaters. Strand also says the film is Portugal’s Official Selection for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards, 2010 (83rd). Current Metacritic rating is 68%k.


*Sympathetic Cinema Scope article on the film and Rodrigues' work by Dennis Lim and an interview with Rodrigues.

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