To Die Like a Man -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

This year's New York Film Festival was criticized for highlighting a slate of esoteric, grimly pessimistic movies, and Portugal's "To Die Like a Man" certainly would fit into that category of arty downers. But like many of the other movies presented at the festival, this drag-queen tragicomedy has considerable merits along with some maddening elements. Joao Pedro Rodrigues' third film should be popular on the festival circuit but has little boxoffice potential.

The movie begins with a war scene that combines homosexuality, surrealism and violence -- elements that recur throughout the film. At first this opening sequence seems to have no connection to the main story, which concerns the travails of Tonia (Fernando Santos), a drag queen in a Lisbon nightclub. But one of the pleasures of the movie is how all the apparently disparate elements eventually intersect and meld into a satisfying whole.

Tonia is contemplating a sex-change operation, and she is also battling with her boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), a drug addict with a violent streak. Her surly son, a soldier, shows up to add to Tonia's stress.

The first half of the movie is something of a chore. For one thing, the performance by Santos, an inexperienced actor, is too shrill. Also, it's difficult to understand Tonia's obsession with the disagreeable Rosario. Even granting that many attractions defy rationality, Rodrigues should have presented Rosario in a more balanced light to make this love affair credible. This first half of the movie also features some fairly graphic sex scenes that will be no problem for gay audiences but will turn off a larger public. It's questionable whether these scenes add anything to the movie.

But just as the movie is about to wear out its welcome, it shifts gears unexpectedly. Tonia and Rosario set out for the country to visit Rosario's brother, but instead they end up in an enchanted forest presided over by another drag queen, the bewitching Maria (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida), who has all the confidence and poise that Tonia lacks. These sequences are done in a magical realist style that provides an idyllic respite for the characters -- and for the audience.

Somehow this sojourn calms and sanctifies Tonia and Rosario when they return to Lisbon and face an unexpected health crisis. The final sequences build toward a spiritual redemption that is quite moving. The frenetic style of the first half gives way to a more lyrical, restorative mood that is enhanced by Rui Pocas's cinematography and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata's evocative production design.

The best performance comes from de Almeida, while others are more amateurish. At 138 minutes, the film clearly is self-indulgent, but there are enough privileged moments to please discerning moviegoers.

Venue: New York Film Festival
Cast: Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida, Chandra Malatitch, Jenny Larrue, Cindy Scrash
Director: Joao Pedro Rodrigues
Screenwriters: Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Rui Catalao, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata.
Producer: Maria Joao Sigalho
Director of photography: Rui Pocas
Production designer: Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Costume designer: Patricia Doria
Editors: Rui Mourao, Joao Pedro Rodrigues
No MPAA rating, 138 minutes