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An aging drag queen and a guerilla fighter become unlikely bedfellows in the Chilean drama My Tender Matador (Tengo miedo torero). This adaptation of Pedro Lemebel’s essential novel has been mostly turned into an atmospheric chamber piece by writer-director Rodrigo Sepulveda (Aurora), who directs Chilean acting great Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero) in a finely limned performance as the nameless protagonist (referred to as “Queen of the Corner” in the book).
After Castro’s turn in last year’s prison fantasy drama The Prince, which bowed in the Critics’ Week sidebar in Venice, My Tender Matador, which premieres in the festival’s Giornate degli autori section, marks Castro’s second major queer role in as many years to premiere on the Lido. It should help put this title on the radar of LGBTQ festivals and distributors and could, given Castro’s visibility and the film’s historical and political context, find a slightly wider, more general audience of arthouse aficionados as well.
The story unfolds in the lead-up to the 1986 attempt on the life of Pinochet by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. But this adaptation, written by Sepulveda and Juan Tovar and based on a screenplay by the late Lemebel, largely ignores the parts of the novel that deal directly with the General in order to concentrate on the smaller, more moving chronicle of two outsiders who find themselves thrown together almost by accident.
Castro’s aging drag queen — about 20 years older than in the novel — lives in the wrong part of Santiago in a bourgeois apartment that’s been abandoned after the 1985 earthquakes. It is a space that, as imagined by production designer Marisol Torres, is a visual expression of the protagonist’s marginalized status in Chilean society at that time while still giving you the dilapidated hipster-chic vibe you’d expect from the home of someone for whom dressing up beautifully and emphatically is a way of life. The underlying idea of the location, of course, is that a queen merits a palace but that under Pinochet, she’s had to illegally occupy a fancy home nearly destroyed by an earthquake because no one will just give her what she deserves.
When running from a police raid on a gay bar that leaves a drag singer shot at close range, Queen manages to escape the attention of the cops thanks to a handsome Mexican stranger, Carlos (Mexican actor Leonardo Ortizgris, Gueros). There is an unexpected spark of sorts between the two (a student in the novel, Carlos seems to be somewhat older here, too). It doesn’t take long before the sexy bearded man knocks on Queen’s door and asks her to help him out by storing some boxes with “books” in her apartment.
Thus starts the protagonists’ slow pas de deux to figure out what each might want and could get from the other. After years of working the exit stairs of a porn cinema as a prostitute, Queen surely knows a thing or two about men and how trustworthy their motives might turn out to be. Queen doesn’t need much time to figure out Carlos and his compañeros might be planning something to bring about political change and could use a place like hers to hide items and meet without being seen. Still, even for someone who has seen pretty much everything and should know better, Queen clearly finds an all-consuming allure to the idea of finally being loved just for who you are.
Though some key moments actually happen outside, most of the film is spent in the protagonist’s penumbral dwelling. Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, who like Castro has frequently worked with Pablo Larrain, keeps the colors dark and saturated, highlighting how both drag queens and those bent on toppling dictators operate in the shadows. Though the film was shot on a state-of-the-art digital Epic Red, Armstrong’s use of anamorphic Hawk lenses, selective focus, shadows and grain imbue the images with a classical, old-timey sheen that befits the period, while the widescreen mise-en-scene is often used counter-intuitively, to highlight how the protagonists are both boxed in and can only rely on each other.
Whereas The Prince took an extremely explicit approach to being queer and queer sex in particular, My Tender Matador opts for the portrayal of a slow-burn relationship in which even a kiss could be considered too much. This might annoy prospective patrons expecting at least some bang(ing) for their queer arthouse buck. But the choice imbues Sepulveda’s adaptation with a different kind of frisson, which is not erotic so much as one of feverish expectation, tinged with dread and the cruel awareness that not making the first move will afford you safety and reassuring protection from disillusionment.
As Carlos, Ortizgris does take some time to warm up. That’s at least partly due to the screenplay, which stays too close to the point-of-view of Castro’s character, especially in the first half. But a picnic and a birthday surprise after the midway point finally give the actor more varied notes to play. A late monologue also offers up a Freudian goldmine of a backstory, suddenly rounding out this enigmatic character. The trick, of course, is to make it feel like the audience isn’t suddenly being spoon-fed new insights but rather that Carlos has decided to risk finally opening up a little bit. Ortizgris ensures that is exactly how it feels.
Castro, with stringy gray hair dyed light brown except around the temples, does a lot with very little. Finding the right balance between a drag queen’s exuberance and her world-weariness and between her unpronounced fears and hopes is tricky but Castro aces it, foregoing any showboating or mannerisms and expressing the character’s insecurities mainly in her glances and silences. By the time My Tender Matador comes to a close, at the seaside at magic hour, it’s not the view but the lived-in wisdom, sprinkled with humor as much as regret, that is breathtaking.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate degli Autori)
Production companies: Forastero, Tornado, Caponeto, Zapik
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Leonardo Ortizgris, Sergio Hernandez, Amparo Noguera, Luis Gnecco, Julieta Zylberberg, Ezequiel Diaz
Director: Rodrigo Sepulveda
Screenplay: Rodrigo Sepulveda, Juan Tovar, based on the screenplay/novel by Pedro Lemebel
Producers: Florencia Larrea, Lucas Engel, Gegorio Gonzalez, Ezequiel Borovinsky, Alejandro Israel, Diego Martinez Ulanosky, Jorge Lopez Vidales
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong
Production design: Marisol Torres
Costume design: Carolina Espina
Editing: Ana Godoy, Rosario Suarez
Music: Pedro Aznar
Sales: Grandave Capital
In Chilean and Mexican Spanish
No rating, 93 minutes
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