Friday, April 8, 2011

João Pedro Rodrigues' TO DIE LIKE A MAN opens in New York: Go with it or give it up

The most recent film from aging Portuguese bad boy João Pedro Rodrigues opens today,and if you did not see it during its short run at BAM last year, during a mini-fest devoted to the work of this interesting filmmaker, now's your chance. Rodrigues' longest and most-heralded film so far, 2009's To Die Like A Man, tells of the travails of Tonia, a transvestite on her way to full transgenderation. The film opens with a young man applying... make-up?  Or is it war paint?  Then we cut to the shot of a spider in her web and then to a pair of soldiers, one of whom is that young man again, in camouflage, on a mission or perhaps part of a military game. Strange, very bad things happen, but, as usual with Rodrigues (shown below), you are not always certain what is real.

In this film, which involves sexuality, identity, children, father-and-son (or mother-and-sons: Trannies, you may realize along the way, allow you to have your mom and dad -- and eat them, too!), Rodrigues has created quite a character in Tonia, his drag-show entertainer with a fondness for young men, whether they be her son or her lover.

That lover's a druggie, and so the two squabble, make up, and squabble some more. He's off drugs, then back on. And when s/he gives the kid a blow job, be breaks it off mid-suck.

Instead of the story circling around, it's the location that does so, coming back to the house through the window of which, at the film's beginning, the two soldiers watched as two transvestites partied.  When we come back to this house, the film turns (even more) surreal, offering up a love song (religious?), as our characters, including a dog, sit together in what seems a kind of enchanted forest of Arden. After which the movie momentarily turn into L'avventura (with Tonia standing in for the missing Anna).

Arbitrary does not begin to describe this movie -- philosophical, funny, moving, sentimental, silly -- in which events, desires, characters all change at the drop of a hat.  And yet, as usual with this man's work, you can't shake the thing. And Rodrigues saves his best costume, a glorious one, for the finale. And also his most surprising line: "Don't be so sure; that's not who I am."

The idea that sexual preference is fluid has been with us down the ages. But sexuality itself? That seems even more startling. How interesting to have two "art" films opening theatrically this week that are so different, in every way, and yet make a wonderful comparison: Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, which has probably recevied the best reviews of any film to open this year (bettering even those of Uncle Boonmee!) and is a not-uninteresting but flat presentation in which everything, including the fact that the future is unknowable, is spelled out; and To Die Like A Man, which is consistently fluid and tantalizing, dreamlike and transgressive, but user-friendly only to those who simply give over many of their pre-conceived notions. Both should be seen, and will be.  But only the first of the two, I suspect, will haul in the "mainstream art film" crowd. A shame.

To Die Like a Man, from Strand Releasing, opens in New York today at the IFC Center. It may be coming other theaters, though as of opening day, the company offered no information about the movie on its own web site -- other than the title.

Last year, I covered the Rodriguez' fest at BAM and had a short interview with the director. You can find that post -- and interview -- here.

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