Venice 2020 review: My Tender Matador (Rodrigo Sepúlveda)

If there’s ever a revolution that includes us, let me know, I’ll be there front row.” Sometimes a single line of dialogue succinctly gets to the soul of a film or its central character. That is certainly the case for this line from My Tender Matador, a film based on the only novel by Chilean essayist and chronicler Pedro Lemebel. Known for his subversive acts of disruption in the later years of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s reign, Lemebel was indeed at the front of the struggle for recognition of homosexuals in Chile in the ’80s, at that time (and to some extent still) a deeply conservative society. Even though the film and novel are not (or at most only in part) autobiographical, the marginalization and invisibility of queer people to all of Chilean society, not just the rightwing dictatorship, and Lemebel’s lifelong revolt against this is expressed through that line.

The protagonist of My Tender Matador is known only by the name La Loca del Frente, in English The Queen of the Corner. There is, however, a double meaning hidden in the word ‘frente’, which also translates to ‘front’, and this relates La Loca to the object of his desire, a charming revolutionary named Carlos who is a member of the Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez or Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, a Marxist-Leninist group who executed a (failed) attempt to assassinate Pinochet in September of 1986. This lends a heroic poignancy to the above quote, and draws a parallel between the two different fronts La Loca and Lemebel operated on.

La Loca is a transvestite in one of Santiago’s poorer barrios. He survives a violent police raid on a drag club with the help of Carlos (Leonardo Ortizgris), a handsome Mexican. Not long after, Carlos comes to visit La Loca and asks if he can store a few boxes of ‘art books’ at his place. Soon he introduces a ‘study group’. It doesn’t take long for La Loca to catch on and find out the boxes contain not only weapons of the pen, but also actual weapons. His desire for Carlos and a longing for a meaningful connection blinds him to the danger and to the fact that the desire isn’t mutual. He helps Carlos out when the latter, severely hung over after a night of drinking, can’t make an important clandestine delivery. La Loca grows increasingly bold in his defiance of being oppressed as a homosexual, yet also becomes more aware that Carlos’ interest in him is purely platonic. An emotional confrontation between the two results in the opening line of this review, because as La Loca says, whether it is the military or the communists on top, “for them we will always be a bunch of fags.”

Director Rodrigo Sepúlveda lets events play out in a relatively straightforward manner without much lyricism, except for one scene in which La Loca finds himself in the midst of an anti-Pinochet demonstration. My Tender Matador is mostly a story of unrequited love and of one person’s bravery in the face of bigotry, using the political situation in Chile at the time only as a background and catalyst. Evocative cinematography and an appropriately gritty yet vivacious production design do the rest. But the heart of the film is the relationship between La Loca and Carlos, and the heaviest lifting is done by the actors.

Lemebel himself was deeply involved in the production of My Tender Matador up until his death in 2015, and he personally picked Alfredo Castro for the lead role. The Chilean chameleon completely disappears in the role in what might be a career-best performance. His La Loca is flamboyantly extraverted when needed, but it is especially in the quiet and tender moments like the confrontation with Carlos that Castro shines, his sad eyes and body language telling a story that barely needs dialogue. Castro makes every little gesture and every inflection of his voice work, building a middle-aged man who hides his sadness about never having been truly loved behind a facade. “I don’t have friends, darling, I have lovers,” he says to Carlos with his typical flamboyancy. The truth is the opposite. He latches onto Carlos, only to find the strength in his otherness to defy society instead of finding that which he desires most, interpersonal connection. Carlos, the mysterious and good-looking lover (Ortizgris should not be forgotten, as he complements Castro perfectly in his role), is the perfect foil for La Loca’s self-discovery as someone who finds pride in their sexuality and refuses to be repressed any longer.

The parallels between La Loca and Pedro Lemebel are apparent. Even if My Tender Matador stops well short of being a biopic, it gives an insight into Lemebel’s emergence as an activist and a man who was no longer willing to bow down to the norm. Although fairly conventional in the way it is executed, My Tender Matador is an engaging and endearing portrait of loneliness and defiance anchored by an exceptional performance, even if the film requires a little more background than it gives to fully appreciate it.