To Die Like a Man

Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues takes the familiar story of an aging drag queen, whose lover, job, and very body are all in varying states of turmoil, and imbues it with deep feeling. Rodrigues’s first two films, O Fantasma (02) and Two Drifters (06), viewed desire through a sometimes hallucinatory lens, and while his latest at times shares their dreamlike intensity, it rests just as much on the broad shoulders of Fernando Santos, playing the overwhelmed but never less than engaged Tonia.

Tonia’s operatic travails include a drug-addicted boyfriend who ensures a masochistic relationship, and pneumatic competition at the Lisbon club where she puts on her venerable show. But perhaps her biggest challenge comes from within: the potential psychological and physical tolls of a sought-after sex change (urged upon Tonia by her self-destructive, and just plain destructive, lover).

While indebted to Fassbinder, Rodrigues finds his own distinct register of melodrama and demonstrates an ability to up the stakes with unexpected stylistic choices or dramatic coups. Festival reviews have rightly singled out a red-filter outing in the forest during a country getaway as a moment that’s at once fancifully silly and transcendent (perhaps not unlike a passage or two in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). It’s a film that, clocking at over two hours and centering on all-too-real mortality, deserves (and would reward) more attention.