Sunday, June 20, 2010

Paulista: Modern Romance without the Samba

Note: this is another review of "trans-themed" film from the Frameline 34 Film Festival in San Francisco.

Justine and Marina: getting to know you
before we fuck each other's brains out

(original title: Quanto Dura o Amor?) is both one of the largest thoroughfares in Sao Paulo and a slang term for natives from that very urban metropolis. Marina arrives from the burbs wanting to be an actress. She shares an apartment in a high rise with her sometime boyfriend's former roommate, Suzana, an attorney. Also in the building is schlubby Jay, a poet who meets the newcomer on her second day in the city, and takes her to a bar/music club. Unfortunately for Jay, Marina only has eyes for the charismatic (and very likely bat-shit crazy) Justine, a tall, moody singer (who sings a great cover of Radiohead's High & Dry... there is no samba in this film). Marina and Justine are soon involved and you suspect this relationship is too charged to last long. Meanwhile, the respectable attorney Suzana is approached by another attorney, Gil, and they connect over sushi and talk of karate and cats. Finally, Jay is hopelessly smitten with prostitute Michelle, not quite getting that she's strictly in it for the money.

Jay pining while his sexworker/love
Michelle watches the clock

Don't expect Sex and the City 3
Director Roberto Moreira beautifully wraps these three stories effortlessly around one another, using the crushingly packed city as a character. Disruptions appear when Nuno, a handsome slick hipster owner of the club where Justine performs and who is a still-sometime rough sex lover of Justine's and warns Marina about Justine's instability. Needless to say, all of these relationships go through their own ups, glories and eventual meltdowns since, as the title asks in Portuguese, how long does the love last? Brazilians aren't big on optimism or happy endings and, despite the sexiness, fun and charge which floats most of Paulista, this isn't your typical U.S. feel good chick flick.

Suzana and Gil: Lawyers in Love?

A character who is trans not a trans character
For purposes of this blog, Suzana's character and relationship are most pertinent since she's a somewhat unique character in the history of trans women in cinema. As played by actress Maria Clara Spinelli (who is also a trans woman) the character is only incidentally about being trans. As the director stated, "[It's a paradox] the fact is that she's a transsexual, but she's the most conservative one in the film. People assume that she would be the flamboyant, overly sexual one, and it is not so." He also pointed out:
There is a transsexual, but this is not focused on should she get the [gender reassignment] surgery or not. For the lesbian character, it's not a coming out story. We are beyond that. This a story of ‘how do I live? How do I love?' Those are universal themes that everyone can relate to.”
In other words, she's trans, it's not a big deal, get over it. Suzana is basically the older sister of the household, needing to remind the not-especially-mature Marina not to smoke inside or to leave a big mess when having wild sex with Justine. Suzana is pretty much living in stealth with the exception of her downstairs neighbor. Yes, eventually the relationship comes down to, "when do I tell Gil about my history."

Maria at the Hollywood Brazilian Film Festival in LA

Award Winner first time out
Considering this is the 26-year old Spinelli's first film, she gives an amazingly assured, measured and low-key performance (she won "best actress" at the Paulinea Film Festival, Sao Paulo's largest). I hope she gets a chance to act in other films which don't revolve around her being trans. Many trans actresses in European films have gotten their one shot, only to be marginalized again after their film has made the rounds. All the actors in this film are excellent, especially Silvia Lourenço as Marina and grammy winning singer Danni Carlos as the unstable Justine. Fábio Herford deserves special mention as the neurotic and obsessed Jay, who tries to give his book of poetry to a hooker in hopes she'll have a real relationship with him.

Sao Paulo: 11 million naked stories
in the concrete city

Trans = no biggie
Suzana's trans issues of stealth and disclosure are nothing new for films, but they're handled with such a lack of any sensationalism that they take a back seat to Justine's issues (who is, interestingly, a tall, outrageous, be-wigged, messed up and very sexual cis woman... an interesting twist for a film with a trans character). At one point in the film, Suzana shows photos of herself as a boy (actual shots of Spinelli when young), but it's not done as a "reveal scene" more with ironic detachment and wistfulness for a sweet, loved little child who is long gone but still in her heart. At no point is her womanhood made an issue in the film, which greatly differentiates it from virtually every other North American film about trans women.

As with the other characters, she survives in the overwhelming concrete ugliness of Sao Paulo which, like New York, is no beauty but sizzles with excitement, swarming humanity and possibility. It's a very un-cliched view of cities, multicultural societies and trans womanhood in a way which seems both so foreign to American mainstream filmmakers and extremely refreshing.


  1. You've really intrigued me with your review of this film. I will have to hope that it either shows up at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival or it becomes available on DVD.

  2. dear Gina,

    I loved your text about the film.


    very sensible and human...

    thank you.

    kisses, roses,
    Maria Clara

  3. I love that she's trans, so not the focus of the film but the emotional romantic intertwining is. I am going to see this.

  4. I've been trying to decide whether or not to see this at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival this weekend, and your review has settled the matter: yes, I will:3

    P.S. Have you seen the movie Ma Vie en Rose? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it...

  5. @Jessie: Good decision... you'll be glad you did. And Ma Vie en Rose is a wonderful, moving film. I do think it's important that those who see it know there are many people who ultimately transition 'mtf' who were not into pink or Barbies when they were young yet still had profound gender dysphoria.

  6. I just saw Paulista today. I actually think that it was one of the best trans portrayals I've seen in film, for the reasons you described in the review.

    I did feel a bit annoyed when she broke it to Gil by concluding that she "had a sex change operation". Her explanation had been so eloquent up until that point, and the all of a sudden, the stereotypical fixation on "the surgery"...completely glossing over the social changes, and all the other physical changes that usually accompany transition. It's a way of describing it that sensationalizes, and makes it sound like that's the most important part of being a transsexual. That said, the two trans women I saw the movie with weren't bothered like I was, so perhaps I'm being too exacting:P It really was a much better portrayal than 99% of films with trans content out there.

    That said, my god it was one of the saddest movies I've seen in a while (this is coming from somebody who is often accused of watching 'depressing movies'). When the credits started to roll I burst into tears T_T It was a very good, realistic movie, but the storyline with Suzana was heart wrenching for me. I do hope for the day when there can be more positive trans portrayals in film that are also uplifting.

    P.S. Yes, that was my complaint about Ma Vie en Rose as well. However it was one of the first overall positive trans portrayals I ever saw, and stuck with me because of that.


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