One of my activist friends sat me down this weekend to show me Quanto Dura o Amor? (2009, directed by Roberto Moreira). I like that title better than its international title, Paulista, because it has some imagination and poetry behind it. Paulista refers to both inhabitants of São Paulo, Brazil, and the main thoroughfare through that city. Paulista, title and film, reminds me a little of Cameron Crowe's Singles, complete with musical sensibility. It plays as if that film had been filtered through a queer sensibility. The final act of Quanto Dura o Amor? severs that connection, mercifully, but I'll get to that in a bit. The film's Portugese title translates, roughly, as "How long does love last?" Love, in this film, is fleetingly brief.
The story in Quanto Dura o Amor? follows three twenty-somethings living in the same apartment block in São Paulo. They are: Marina, newly arrived in the city from the sticks. She's an actress, in the city for classes and auditions. She's staying with Suzanna, a lawyer who is falling for a fellow lawyer; she has a secret that he might not be able to accept. Their neighbor is Jay, a poet whose schlubbish appearance and lack of self-esteem leads him to find love in the arms of prostitutes, one of whom he has fallen for hard. All of these characters are defined by their longing for love. Marina falls for Justine, a singer at the nightclub just around the corner. Justine is a wild child and seems to still be attached to Nuno, the owner of the club. Justine is also batshit insane, which becomes increasingly obvious as the movie progresses. Suzanna wants to settle down with a husband, and Gil seems like an ideal match, but her secret causes her to withdraw from him. When she finally opens up, it's disastrous. Jay's obsession for Michelle, a prostitute who increasingly tells him that she's only in it for the money, leads him to humiliating lengths. At the end of the film, all three characters are alone and brokenhearted. If this sounds depressing, I suppose that it is, but the film is so much fun to watch that it doesn't matter. For that matter, the ending is perfect and satisfying for all its sadness. Sadness can be sweet.
The São Paulo of this film is kind of an ugly city. Like most relatively new cities, it's characterized by concrete housing blocks and sterile buildings. What makes the city come to life here is the press and life force of the assembled humanity, but the setting does instill more than a little rootlessness into the film, an effect occasionally exaggerated by the characteristic coolness of films shot, as this one is, with the Red One digital camera. I mention this because the city is a character here.
I was referred to this film mainly for the character of Suzanna, played by Maria Clara Spinelli. The character and actress are both transsexuals, so I have some vested interest in her portrayal. She is fairly unique in movies. No big thing is made of her history, except as far as it affects the plot. She's a normal person with a normal job and normal wants and dreams and a normal sex life. The film doesn't sexualize her, even though she's gorgeous, nor does it rob her of her sexuality. She's the most stable character in the film, one who is kind of a den mother to Marina's character, one who is NOT a wild child. So she's trans! the film seems to be saying. We're WAY past that at this point (or should be). Spinelli, for her part, invests the character with a kind of melancholy resignation, because her paramour is totally not past it. I am a little bit wary of the way the film eases into revealing her past, but the character is herself totally stealth, so there's a method to it. It doesn't play into the trans woman as deceiver archetype, but it flirts with it, and I worry that Gil's ultimate rejection of Suzanna will play as "totally understandable" to some, or even most members of the audience. I should note that, given my own personal history, the way the film strips Suzanna bare at the end of the movie was kind of devastating. The hurt is naked for all to see. Your mileage may vary.
All of this is doubly surprising, given that many of the characteristics that are usually assigned to trans women in movies are transposed onto Justine, who is unstable, tall, flamboyant, and sexualized. For that matter, the treatment of Marina's character bears some comment, too: The fact that the object of her affection is another woman seems entirely natural. That such a relationship is completely normal and unremarkable in the broader context of the place where she is is also striking. The movie doesn't punish these characters for their sexualities. It takes it all in stride. Significantly, the most dysfunctional character in the movie is Jay, a cisgender straight man. I'd like to think that this is a sign of things to come, that Quanto Dura o Amor? is a harbinger of a generation of post-queer movies, but that hope may be foolishly utopian on my part. That said, the last several depictions of variant gender identities that I've seen from South America really make me want to live there.