Venice Film Festival 2020: Rodrigo Sepulveda’s My Tender Matador is about a young revolutionary and an ageing homosexual
Despite the political background, Chilean film My Tender Matador is more about personal politics: the politics of being a homosexual, and of being a revolutionary who has sad stories of his own.
A film festival is a place to discover great films, yes, but sometimes, even a not-bad (i.e. decidedly un-great) film can prove worthwhile. On the surface, Rodrigo Sepulveda’s Chilean drama, My Tender Matador (Tengo miedo torero), is yet another story of an unlikely friendship between two very different people: a young revolutionary named Carlos (Leonardo Ortizgris) and an aging homosexual/transvestite (Alfredo Castro) who calls herself Queen. But what matters to outsiders like us is the quick, hour-and-a-half tour of what it was probably like to be in Santiago in the spring of 1986, when people were openly protesting against Pinochet’s dictatorship. You can Wiki up this stuff all you want, but watching it is still something else.
Plus, My Tender Matador introduces at least some of us to the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, whose 2001 novel is this film’s source. The press note says that Lemebel was a staunch defender of the socially marginalised, “becoming a true icon of counterculture”. Tengo miedo torero (2001) was his first novel translated to English, and it’s around this time that the writer acquired his last name, which is his mother’s. (His paternal last name was Mardones.) From Wikipedia: “Lemebel is a gesture of femininity, to engrave a maternal last name, to acknowledge my (washer) mother in light of the illegality of homosexual(s) and transvestite(s).”
The film’s Queen is extravagantly feminine, and she’s infused with Lemebel’s “language of queer humiliation,” as The New Yorker wrote in a tribute, after the author’s death in 2015. In the film, Queen cheerfully calls herself “sissy” and “faggot”. (Indeed, it is unclear whether Queen is a transperson or a man who likes to sometimes wear women’s clothes, but the pronouns you want to use while referring to “her” are the feminine ones.)
She talks about being forced by her father to play football. “He asked the other kids to hit me, so I could become a man.” She talks about not celebrating her birthday since she was 10. “I was such a sissy, no parent wanted to send their kids to my birthday.” These statements are all the more touching because they are narrated with a sense of unalterable fact, like someone saying “the sky is blue”.
Queen’s unapologetic gayness is surely a reason this friendship seems unlikely, but not because Carlos is a homophobe. Far from it, actually. It’s more that Queen does not care about Carlos’s cause. (He and his friends have a plan for Pinochet.) “Us queens don’t care about who’s on top, the military or the communists. For them, we’ll always be a bunch of fucking fags. If there’s ever a revolution that includes us, let me know. I’ll be there, front row.”
So what does (the presumably straight) Carlos want with Queen, who’s clearly in love with him? Is it a real friendship? Carlos stores in Queen’s home the guns and other things he needs for his plan. Is this like how we’d ask a friend to keep some stuff of ours while we move homes? Or is he pretending to be Queen’s friend, simply so that he can store in Queen’s home the guns and other things he needs for his plan? Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Book-versus-film comparisons are fascinating. Here’s how Carlos and Queen meet on the page: “Those fringed scarves, sheer nets, laces, tulles, and gossamers covering the boxes she used as furniture. Those heavy boxes the young man she met at the neighborhood store asked her to keep in her house, that good-looking boy who asked her for a favor. Telling her they were just books, censored books, he said, through lips like moist lilies. She simply couldn’t refuse such a virile voice, and the echo of those words from that mouth continued to reverberate in her silly head like an excited little bird. Why should she ask more questions? He said his name was Carlos something or other…”
It’s a far more dramatic meeting on screen. Queen is in the audience, watching a drag show, when the cops barge in and begin firing shots. A terrified Queen flees to the street, running blindly, when a hand out of nowhere grabs her and pins her to a wall just in time, as a siren-blaring cop car passes them. Carlos drops Queen home, and perhaps he thinks this dilapidated house in this dumpy, earthquake-hit neighbourhood would be the perfect place to hide his boxes. Maybe he thinks he can use this silly old queen. (Reread the extract above.) I would have liked to know the source of Carlos’s feelings for Queen, whatever they were. But then again, how can we hope to define something that he himself hasn’t fully grasped?
Despite the political background (the events are based around the 1986 attempt on Pinochet’s life by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front), this is not an explicitly political film. Yes, we do get the scene where Queen is able to slip through the police who intimidate protestors. (They think he’s harmless.) But Pinochet, who is an actual character in a parallel narrative in the book, is here a mere (unseen) presence.
The film, thus, is more about personal politics: the politics of being a homosexual, the politics of being a revolutionary who has sad stories of his own.
The way Carlos tears up when Queen throws him a birthday party, it’s clear he’s not had the best of childhoods, either. Maybe that’s what draws him to Queen, the fact that both of them are “outsiders” in a sense.
I was reminded of Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), where a friendship blooms in prison between a revolutionary and a gay man. Again, the two are linked as “outsiders”, and the source novel by Manuel Puig is, again, Latin American (Argentinean, this time, though the movie transferred the story to Brazil, because the military dictatorship there provided more narrative possibilities). But that’s a different movie. In other words, while we’ve seen many revolutionaries on film and many queer people on film, it’s the place-and-time specifics that make My Tender Matador worthwhile: the fact that we see what it’s like to be a revolutionary and what it’s like to be queer in 1980s Cuba. It’s why movies are called “motion” pictures. They take us places.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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