IndieLisboa 2024 review: We Are on Air (Diogo Costa Amarante)

We Are on Air finds a permutation of desire that’s a blessing rather than a curse, a multifaceted part of human life that’s too integral for us to reject or fear.”

Desire is a volatile property with powers beyond our wildest imaginings. It can give us purpose and revitalize those who’d forgotten any reason to live. Alternatively, it can whittle down one’s soul, drive you to obsession and the spirit’s dereliction. It’s pleasure and it’s pain, validation and sometimes the reason we feel void. It’s purpose and purposelessness wrapped into one. For the mother and son duo at the center of Diogo Costa Amarante’s feature-length debut, desire is a policeman’s uniform onto which they both project their many wants, letting it become a token of lives lived in perpetual disappointment. Even when they grasp euphoria it never seems to last, and it’s often less fulfilling than it should be. And always that damned arrangement of blue cloth and gold insignias is at the eye of the hurricane. For Vítor, a thirty-something still living in his mother’s house, the clothing is a costume he uses to become another man’s fantasy, a tool to get closer and forge an intimacy based on illusions. For Fátima, his hairdresser mother, the uniform is the closest she ever comes to the man who owns it, a handsome married neighbor who stars in all her erotic reveries. In extremis, she’ll even have a different man wear it as if trying to capture the unreachable object of fixation. It’s her way of making dreams a reality.

Then again, in We Are on Air all life unfolds with a certain oneiric quality. Take Vítor’s introduction during the film’s opening credits, a sequence lost in the misty abstraction of a highway at night. Before showing us the man driving, Amarante puts us in his shoes, exposing a POV of divided attention. There, next to the dashboard, his phone is mounted so that Vítor can appreciate the cam-boy of his dreams, body undulating to music we cannot hear. Condensation and rainwater diffuse the image, they smudge both road and desiring body into a moving watercolor, perchance a starfield of shattered suns. It’s as beautiful as it is haunting, with just the right hint of peril to quicken the pulse. In a convention-breaking gesture Amarante even includes the swipe of a hand over the lens, trying to clear up the image before giving up and giving in to the odd visual register. Better to surrender than to resist, a lesson that reverberates through the following images, as the cop-costumed Vítor comes to a rest stop-cum-cruising spot. Unable to have his twink for the night, the man finds solace in the company of a trucker who offers him a bed. But in the arms of a new lover, Vítor still thinks of the cam-boy, surrendering to dream scenarios in pink restrooms. Even as the body is satisfied with a man, the mind desires another.

Many have compared this film to early Almodóvar, but Amarante holds on to a sense of sorrowful tragicomedy that’s quite different from the Spanish director’s oeuvre. Sure, one still notices the filmmaker’s fixation on queer desire and actresses, a penchant for bright color, and a taste for kitsch melodrama. However, the comparison is limited and tends to fly over the two artists’ specificities. For example, while Amarante uses bold art direction, it’s mostly relegated to dreams and a talk show set, maintaining a strict barrier between artifice and mundanity. If anything, his camerawork and staging are more Lubitschian. Moreover, there are none of the curated domestic spaces we see in Almodóvar, for Vítor and Fátima are yearning for the fantasy rather than already living in a world shaped by it. The reoccurrence of mirrors and reflections calls attention to the work one puts in presenting oneself to outside eyes, the duplicity of appearances that more clearly reveal who we want to be than who we are. Breast implants and dye jobs are common conversational topics, and the fakery of Vítor’s policeman persona is evident from minute one. At the same time, the plethora of reflections can multiply grief-stricken faces, confronting one with their own dissatisfaction. In a family drowning in horny frustration, such revelations can be too painful to bear.

Another distinction between these filmmakers’ work lies in the acting register chosen, since Amarante avoids the precise rhythms and stylized delivery of Almodóvar in favor of a more downbeat naturalism. Indeed, as the gorgeous but socially awkward thirty-something, Carloto Cotta delivers what is probably his best performance to date. Though he’s received plenty of plaudits and applause in Portuguese cinema circles, the actor has seldom found a role so pitch-perfect, so unwilling to coddle his tried-and-true techniques and so able to push him forward. While one can read Vítor like an open book, there’s a distance to his pathetic self, a blank stare that beckons fascination and implies a depth of sorrow in the man’s wanting. He works on the paradoxical expressivity of non-demonstrative acting, holding back just enough to be magnetic but not so much that he becomes unknowable. As his mother, Sandra Faleiro is even more remarkable, playing Fátima’s despair as a cannibalizing force from within. However, she doesn’t betray the picture’s light touch, managing to insinuate the corrosive wants and self-image issues of a middle-aged woman without indulging in misery porn. At her best, she combines a song of sorrow and a tune of absurdity into one melody, harmonious despite itself.

In the pairing one sees that connection between gay men and the middle-aged women they declare divas or, in this case, the literal mother. It’s a part of queer culture that has often endured accusations of misogyny, but Amarante manages to escape those and even combat them. Mother and son act as both a reflection of the other and as complements, a contradiction complicated by the empathetic camera. Moreover, there’s a third element to this family of desirous fools, one that opens up the trap that Fátima and Vítor find themselves in and offers a more mature perspective. She is Júlia, the hairdresser’s mother, who has just lost her husband. In fact, We Are on Air opens at the cemetery, where the older woman and a faithful friend regard the dead man’s grave. To be fair, they are a bit more focused on the tombstone beside it, a marmoreal placeholder for Júlia when it’s her time to go. Talk about being confronted by mortality! Back home, the picture’s oddball humor will manifest in ghostly apparition, with the best friend becoming a conduit for the husband’s voice, a three-way relationship with the beyond that doesn’t seem to satisfy any of those involved.

And yet, out of all the characters in We Are on Air, Júlia is the most at peace. There’s little worry about desiring or being desired, though that doesn’t mean the elderly are sexless. They still listen to the siren call of love and procure the pleasures of the flesh, like when a group of grey-haired besties decide to try some hard drugs after hearing their effects described on TV as the touch of a thousand little fingers on one’s body. On a trip to the Planetarium, Júlia further goes into the matter of doing what feels good for its own sake. To Vítor she speaks about the wonder of watching the heavens but being afraid of counting stars. Many years ago, her grandmother had told her that doing such a thing would make warts grow on her fingers. So, she wasted years she could have spent indulging in star-counting, depriving herself for no reason other than the judgment of people who feel they can dictate what one should and shouldn’t do. Through her words, We Are on Air finds a permutation of desire that’s a blessing rather than a curse, a multifaceted part of human life that’s too integral for us to reject or fear. By the end of Amarante’s feature debut, the inter-generational kinship is a balm to the soul. And as every symbol of desire resolves and revolves, both characters and audience reach a catharsis not unlike the afterglow of an orgasm.