Portuguese cinema, To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como um Homem) is a film directed and co-written by João Pedro Rodrigues, which was nominated for the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The film opens with a close up of a soldier putting camouflage on his face and marching with his platoon into a wood, where he goes off with another soldier to have sex. Shortly after, disgusted by what he has done, he shoots the other soldier outside the house of two refined transvestites. The theme of the film, the confusion of one’s own sexual and gender identity, is encapsulated in the opening minutes of the film.

The soldier, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) is the son of the film’s protagonist, Tonia (Fernando Santos). Tonia is a bulky middle-aged transvestite with a mass of blonde curly hair, who works as a drag queen in a seedy Lisbon nightclub. She is aware her career is coming to an end, as a younger more female-looking drag queen (Jenni La Rue) is starting to gain the popularity that Tonia formerly had. With this is mind Tonia has decided to have a sex change and become a woman. However, having made this decision the rest of her life is in turmoil. She is in a masochistic relationship with her younger drug-addicted boyfriend, Rosário (Alexander David), and has a difficult relationship with Zé Maria, whose sense of being abandoned by his father is symbolized in a scene where he carefully places some items in Tonia’s fish tank, including one of Tonia’s stiletto shoes and a photograph of himself as a child with his father, before asking his father to give him a place to hide from the police. Tonia’s only positive relationship is with her pet dog and later with a stray dog that she adopts, although even her pet dog has betrayed her by taking some of her beloved possessions, including her rosary (despite her non-conformist lifestyle, she is a devout Catholic) and burying them in her garden.

In an attempt to get Rosário away from the drug dealers of Lisbon Tonia suggests a trip to the country to visit Rosário’s brother. On the way they come across the secluded house of the transvestite couple from the opening scenes of the film, the prima donna-ish Maria (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her dowdy partner, Paula (Miguel Loureiro), whose relationship isn’t portrayed as a positive one. Paula makes very little effort to look like a woman but plays a submissive role to Maria, who dresses in feminine clothes but has an aggressive personality, which raises more questions of gender roles within sexual relationships. Later, when Tonia realises that the blood that has been leaking from her silicon breast implants is, in a way, her body rejecting being a woman and is a sign that she is seriously ill, she decides to die as a man with all vestiges of femaleness removed.

What could have been a depressing film is lifted by the humanity given to the character of Tonia through the script and direction of Rodrigues and by the sympathetic performance of Fernando Santos. The film is long and a surreal scene where Tonia, Rosário, Maria and Paula sit in the woods by the house at night without moving while the screen turns red and a disconcerting song about sorrow, weeping and carrying a cross to Calvary (‘Calvary’ sung by Baby Dee) is played over the top, makes the film, which runs at over two hours, seem much longer. The film could have been improved by some editing, but it is a compelling watch.