While transgender visibility and rights have been on the rise in many nations, the case of Tamara Adrian is particularly notable — not only did she become Venezuela’s first transgender elected official upon becoming a National Assembly member in 2015, but she did so when the country still bans legal acknowledgement of a changed gender identity. A considerable home-turf success, Elia K. Schneider’s “Tamara” is an accomplished biopic that represented a progressive choice for Venezuela to choose as its foreign-language Oscar submission. A fine lead performance by Luis Fernandez keeps this coolly intelligent, melodrama-resistant account involving, even if the details of this “true story” have been largely fictionalized for the screen.
After seven years’ study in Paris, Teo (Fernandez) is most reluctantly called back to 1980s Caracas by his divorced mother (Mimi Lazo); an older brother, “dad’s favorite,” has shot himself in a “hunting accident” that may have been a suicide attempt. In any case, by the time Teo arrives, his sibling has died. Yet his mother’s own neglected health proves prevents him from bolting back on the next plane to Europe; he’s forced to beg his cold, disapproving father (Gerardo Blanco) for the money she needs for immediate surgery.
The androgynous style that Teo could flaunt freely overseas only earns him scorn in his native land. When it’s depressingly clear that family obligations will keep him in Venezuela for the foreseeable future, he duly ditches the flowing locks and gender-blurring clothes that nullify his many academic plaudits for any potential employers. A corporate law-firm job, and swift rise to the company’s presidency, reward his embrace of a traditionally masculine image.
This makeover extends even to marrying concert pianist Maria Isabel (Karina Velazquez), with whom he soon has two young children and a consummately luxe bourgeois lifestyle. But when she takes the kids on a short trip, his repressed emotions — in particular, the lifelong one of feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body — surge forth. He picks up a transgender prostitute (Jhovana Lozada), not for sex but for advice. He then secretly begins hormone therapy, taking initial steps towards gender transition.
When he finally broaches the subject with his wife, her response shuts down all hope that their marriage might continue. But still being attracted to women, he finds an unexpected new love in younger Ana (Prakriti Maduro), a low-level employee at the Catholic university where he teaches. Disdaining dull “normality,” she’s externally a freer spirit than he is — though whether she can fully accept her lover turning from Teo to Tamara is another matter.
Focusing on years of psychological, social, and physical transition (Adrian’s higher-profile subsequent activism is relegated to closing text), “Tamara” feels primarily an interior journey, despite several instances of public discrimination. Schneider and Fernando Butazzoni’s screenplay eventually ekes some suspense out of attempts by hostile faculty and students to expel the post-op professor for “debauchery,” while another discomfiting episode sees our protagonist denied emergency medical care.
The somewhat terse writing and elegant but spare presentation (Osvaldo Montes’ original score barely registers) lend the film a clinical remove that isn’t exactly chilly, but doesn’t exert itself to tap or explain emotions. Fortunately, Fernandez fills in the psychological blanks with an impressively understated turn. He punches across the protagonist’s simultaneous self-doubt and strong will, while fully inhabiting each step along the gender-identity continuum in both looks and manner.
Supporting performances are also strong, though apart from Maduro’s Ana, subsidiary characters don’t get a lot of screentime or shading. While action presumably spans at least a couple decades, Schneider (“Punto y Raya”) downplays any period ambiance, perhaps due to budgetary constraints.