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To Die Like a Man
Time Out New York Project: Issue #807, April 7-13, 2011
Dir. João Pedro Rodrigues. 2009. N/R. 133mins. In Portuguese, German and English, with subtitles. Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida.
It’s likely you’ll lose your bearings during João Pedro Rodrigues’s dreamy melodrama about drag queen Tonia (Santos) and the temperamental male costumer, Rosário (David), with whom she lives in Lisbon. A lengthy prelude gives cheeky acknowledgment to this fact, following a camouflaged group of male soldiers through the woods: Two of them sneak off for some clandestine nookie before stumbling across an isolated house with a pair of interesting inhabitants. Just before we can let out a delighted “what da fuck?” (a thrillingly common occurrence), the film has moved on to the big city, where we’re immersed in Tonia and Rosário’s stormy existence.
Rodrigues is one of the most empathetic portrayers of sexual subcultures (O Fantasma; Two Drifters), and there’s tenderness underlying even the most emotionally violent scenes in To Die Like a Man: When Rosário cruelly refuses a blow job from Tonia after a particularly heated exchange, it aches with recognizable humanity. We never feel like we’re watching constructs being put through mock-transgressive paces. And when the narrative takes a hard-left turn into color-coded fantasy — complete with an enchanted forest and a transgender fairy godmother — the film suddenly gains in power, until it fulfills the promise of its title with hard-hitting compassion and a crystal-clear sense of grace.—Keith Uhlich
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