One of the AFI Fest‘s exclusive screenings in its final two days’ removal to Santa Monica was Portugese João Pedro Rodrigues’ acclaimed transvestite drama Morrer Como Um Homem. From the war-paint-as-make-up opening, followed by a terrific sex-change origami demonstration, to the musical afterlife-view finale, Rodrigues glides smoothly and unhurriedly through the story of aging transvestite Tonia (Fernando Santos), scared of the butchery implied in the final transformation, secure in her inner identity but undeceived by the outer, and slowly dying from the very things that help make her what she is (leaking breast implants).
There are moments of stylistic exuberance but barely a hint of camp – Tonia sings quietly to herself on several occasions but we see not a jot of her cabaret act – through moments of good humour and catty club rivalry dot the melancholy, whilst Rodrigues’s serious approach ranges from distinctly Bressonian hand gestures and intonation to the anti-spectacular 1:1.33 framing. Tonia has two sons, one biological (Chandra Malatitch), estranged and wayward, the other her young, troubled boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David), to whom she’s devoted even while believing him to be stealing from her to feed his smack habit (he’s also a pretty spiffy dressmaker and we first see him rescued from an alley by Tonia in a particularly splendid sparkly red number, shimmering like the ruby slippers in robe form). An unexpected interlude takes the pair to a quasi-magical forest where they encounter the marvelous Maria Bakker (playing herself), in retreat from the world, poised and elegant in silver-black sparkles and feathered cuffs (and tremendous hair!); in this enchanted place, Baby Dee’s “Calvary” appears from nowhere in the woods and the film freezes unexpectedly into a red-filtered tableau of inexplicable beauty.
No less beautiful is a late vindication of Rosário, via a back-garden treasure trove, that plays as a poignantly literal passing of her life before Tonia’s eyes; the ending is inevitable, but the film never succumbs to excesses either of nobility or self-pity. As Tonia herself says, there are no secrets, only shame. Her dual nature is hidden from no-one, and her will to undergo the final sex change is speaks to the strength of how she feels herself to be on the inside. But despite Rosário’s urgings, she has been reluctant to take the final step, having grown fully into this in-between identity. Now having the vestiges of her femininity stripped from her, however, it would be dishonest to to die anything other than like a man. It seems like a very sad ending, in part because the film fails to show us any of the joy that must surely have filled at least part of Tonia’s life, but her final song is apposite, a wish to be plural, the impossible dream that underpins a serious-minded, tender and moving film.
Watch the trailer.