Among the many praiseworthy qualities of “My Tender Matador,” the most notable is its honesty. It would have been so easy for the film, about a transgender woman in Pinochet’s Chile and her relationship with a straight political activist, to have overplayed its hand with ill-judged sentiment or sensationalism, but instead director Rodrigo Sepúlveda Urzúa guides everything just right, from the refusal to treat anyone with less than full respect to the superb ensemble, and from Sergio Armstrong’s carefully calibrated camerawork to the thoughtful understanding of how daylight changes a person who’s lived fullest under the protection of the night. Based on the groundbreaking novel by queer icon Pedro Lemebel, the film deserves better treatment than most international gay-themed dramas get.
Alfredo Castro’s versatility shouldn’t be taken for granted, but how can we not when he keeps delivering one fully rounded performance after another? Here he’s the nameless “Queen of the Corner,” a transgender woman without an ounce of self-pity living on the margins of society. Eking together a living by doing embroidery for the wives of military bigwigs (while turning occasional tricks at an adult cinema), she lives in a large dilapidated apartment on a rundown street, but her real life is at night with fellow queens at an underground drag bar. One night the place is raided by the police, and the performer is shot; the Queen escapes and is unexpectedly protected by Carlos (Leonardo Ortizgris), a very hetero-looking guy who stuck out like a sore thumb in the bar.
When Carlos turns up at her apartment soon after, the Queen doesn’t quite know why he’s being friendly. She knows it’s not sexual, but she’s enjoying the attention. He asks if he could store some boxes of art books in the ramshackle apartment, and she agrees, though the next day when he turns up with uptight Laura (Julieta Zylberberg), the Queen realizes that whatever’s in the boxes aren’t art books. Clearly he scoped her out because she’d be a good cover, but for the Queen, the boxes represent a connection with Carlos, and besides, she’s apolitical so it doesn’t matter one way or the other.
It would be easy to describe “My Tender Matador” as a film about a political awakening, but that’s too simplistic. The Queen is aware of politics (in Pinochet’s Chile it would have been impossible to completely block it out), but she’s not involved: As she tells Carlos in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the fascists or the communists in charge, because of who she is she’ll always be considered scum. Her unapologetic nature and awareness of where she fits in society are so delicately conveyed that when she does perform an act of resistance, its bravery is as potent as it is natural. She does it for Carlos, of course, but when she sees a group of mothers standing in solidarity against the regime, we see that something’s clicked inside.
Before this knockout scene of resistance, we’ve only seen the Queen come into her own either indoors or at night. When you’re a man living your life as a woman, even unashamedly, safe inside spaces and nighttime offer protection from the verbal and physical barbs of an intolerant world. Until that moment, the outdoor daylight scenes make the Queen look exposed, tired and vulnerable. The darker saturated colors inside protect and coddle her flamboyance, they give her a setting where she can shine, whereas on the street, the diffused light makes her look wan and unremarkable, better for avoiding potential attacks. But at the moment when the Queen stands in the middle of a group of recumbent activists and walks past a phalanx of riot police, something powerful has emerged. It’s a tangible expression of love, tied to the feeling of bravely doing what’s right, and its force comes from the way all of it is underplayed.
Until now, only Sepúlveda Urzúa’s second feature, “Aurora,” received much attention outside Latin America, yet “My Tender Matador” clearly reveals a director skilled at translating to the screen a profound sensitivity both to the material and to the characters. In terms of the latter, praise goes to the whole ensemble, from smaller roles filled by frequent collaborators Amparo Noguera, Luis Gnecco and Sergio Hernández to the two main actors, Castro and Ortizgris. The unlikely rapport of their two characters is full of fine shading, such as the way Carlos’ distaste for physicality gradually diminishes in the face of the Queen’s exuberance. She’s an empowering figure, self-aware yet never pathetic, even though she knows the kind of love she gives can’t be returned.
Pablo Larain’s regular DP Sergio Armstrong is one of the top cinematographers today, and he beautifully realizes Sepúlveda Urzúa’s vision with visuals attuned to inner and outer lives, seamlessly shifting from energetic handheld camerawork to judicious, emotionally satisfying crane and drone shots. There are also moments of still-life beauty, such as a shot of the Queen’s feet in a metal basin, her gold pumps on the floor at the top of the frame. The film’s title comes from a ballad by Argentine composer Pedro Aznar, whose songs are woven throughout the film, together with the kinds of traditional drag queen numbers best accompanied by grand gestures and a fringed Spanish shawl.