Body Double


João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die Like a Man, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Tonia (Fernando Santos). Right: Tonia and Rosário (Fernando Santos and Alexander David).

JOÃO PEDRO RODRIGUES’S brilliant To Die Like a Man effortlessly shuttles between nose-to-the-ground melodrama and airy fantasy, embracing both the ethereal and the cruelly physical. The film’s central dichotomy is between body and soul, a dualism best evinced by the lightly worn but deterministic Catholicism of the film’s transgendered protagonist Tonia (Fernando Santos).

Working as a drag queen in a Lisbon discotheque—and living as a woman off the job—Tonia is hesitant to undergo the full sex-change operation demanded by her younger, junky boyfriend. Her reasons for resisting are a botched breast job and a dose of Catholic guilt about altering the body that God gave her. While dealing with her unstable beau, Rosário (Alexander David), and the potential loss of work to younger performers, Tonia begins to produce a milky, bloody discharge from her areola, a sign that her body is rejecting its silicone implants.

To Die Like a Man is highly attuned to the body in all its naked humbleness—never more so than in a scene when, shades of Mary Magdalene, Rosário washes Tonia’s unsightly feet, eventually moving up the torso to definitively expose Tonia’s “manhood.” But Rodrigues’s film is also given to delirious flights of fancy, emphasizing that human experience is by no means limited to the grueling vagaries of day-to-day life. In a series of largely non-narrative sequences that seem to exist outside of time, the film explores higher yearnings that also acknowledge the cruelties of the quotidian temporarily left behind.

In the most bizarre of these moments, Tonia and Rosário stumble upon a trio living away from society in the forest. Everyday time comes to a halt while the five of them go snipe hunting. Suddenly the moon turns red, a crimson haze is thrown across the screen, and the characters sit motionless, listening to an off-screen song about Jesus at Calvary whose audio source remains unspecified, but which provides Tonia with a hard-earned, if temporary, release from the conflicting demands of her corporality. A person may be bound to his or her body, the film suggests, but they need not be defined by it.

Andrew Schenker

To Die Like a Man opens Friday April 8 at the IFC Center in New York.