João Pedro Rodrigues’ slow, meditative To Die Like A Man features several scenes where people walk idly through the woods or the park, partially obscured by the flora as they talk about special plants that have been grown in labs, and whether there’s a natural way that men and women should behave. Nature is an especially important subject for the movie’s heroine, Fernando Santos, a pre-operative transsexual who’s the main attraction at a Lisbon drag club. She’s been consulting with a doctor about having her penis refashioned into a vagina. (“Nothing is discarded,” the doctor explains, restating one of the movie’s themes. “Everything is turned into something else.”) But Santos hesitates, because she’s worried about whether God will approve of the change, and whether this will drive the final wedge between herself and her gay-soldier-in-denial son, Chandra Malatitch. So instead, she goes on a trip into the country with her junkie lover, Alexander David. There, they find two spiritually centered drag queens who offer a sense of perspective.
To Die Like A Man has a strong take on the masks and costumes its characters wear, whether it’s Malatitch blackening his face before going on maneuvers, or Santos putting on heels because “a woman is not complete without aching feet.” The film is filled with striking, sometimes painful images, like the shots of Santos’ infected breast implants leaking through her nipples (a symbol of her growing discomfort with herself), and it features multiple beautiful musical sequences where the cast sings naturally while Rodrigues shoots at striking angles, through colored filters. To Die Like A Man doesn’t all hang together; the acting is flat, the pacing slack, and the characters’ actions are driven less by how people actually behave than by what Rodrigues means to say about the sacrifices we make to wrest control of our self-image. But between those lulls, To Die Like A Man is powerfully controlled, and builds to a moving finale in which the characters are stripped down to their essences: no flowers, just stem.