The Portuguese Queer Screen: Gender Possibilities in João Pedro Rodrigues’s Cinematic Production

Antônio M. da Silva, University of Kent, UK


The Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues has developed a significant cinematic production that has attained international recognition. The three feature films he made in the first decade of the 2000s (Phantom, Two Drifters, and To Die like a Man) engage with queer identities from different perspectives. This article examines the ways in which Rodrigues depicts these and argues that the films provide a spectrum of ‘performatively constituted’ identities that represent a challenge to patriarchy’s hegemonic subjectivities. It contends that such identities consequently represent abjection in a society that ignores them but also that the filmmaker gives them visibility and shows that their subjectivities do matter.


The transgender character Tônia in João Pedro Rodrigues’s Morrer como um homem/To Die like a Man (2009) sings a Portuguese fado in the final sequence of the film that opens with the line “Oh, how I’d like to live in the plural!” This line encapsulates how gender identities are constructed and depicted in the three feature films discussed in this article: they are ‘performatively constituted’ in the sense of Judith Butler’s (1990) assertion that “there is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; […] identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (34). In other words, these identities are ‘floating’ and not restricted to the biologically born gender.

In this trilogy-like set of feature films, which comprises his debut O fantasma/Phantom (2000), Odete/Two Drifters (2005), and To Die like a Man, Rodrigues offers the viewer a number of possible queer subjectivities. Queer means, in this case, all the identities that do not conform to hegemonic norms regarding gender and sexuality, including homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgenderism. Moreover, it can be argued that queer is also what represents “abjection” (Kristeva 1982), which is a view patriarchy exploits to keep heterosexual identities in place. This happens in a rather symbiotic relationship that arguably needs the queer as an opposite to reaffirm what heterosexual identities are (or what they are not). Such a symbiotic relationship is evident in many patriarchal contexts where masculinity is defined mostly in relation to queer: one is either a ‘proper man’ (whatever that means) or he is queer and thus subject to punishment.

Context therefore plays an important role in queer subjectivities, particularly the urban space where such ‘abject’ identities are less susceptible to punishment and are, to some extent, ‘freer’ from severe regulations. This is evident in the three films discussed herein, which show that Rodrigues’s characters become part of the Portuguese urban space, represented in the films by the capital, Lisbon—as will be developed later in this article. However, as Trindade (2010) argues in relation to the Portuguese film Lisboa, Crónica Anedótica/Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle, such characters are Lisbon dwellers but they do not constitute a collective entity (or identity). This is a crucial point regarding these three films because the characters’ ‘failure’ to represent the identity of a group (a ‘category’) to the detriment of each individual’s has been an issue critics have picked on. In other words, Rodrigues’s films show the viewer a spectrum of gender identities but these are based on the individuality of the subjects he portrays rather than trying to create a collective queer identity. Despite this, his approach to queer indicates that such a term can work as an umbrella under which various kinds of gender subjectivities are possible. This is strongly indicated by the director himself stating in an interview that each film is a unique story, even if it could be related to the outside world (Lim 2009).

The aim of this article is therefore to discuss the queer subjectivities Rodrigues constructs in his films and how these are related to the urban space in which the characters are placed. It will refer mostly to Julia Kristeva’s theorisation of abjection while discussing the characters’ subjectivities because these queer characters are part of an urban environment that allows them to get on with their lives as they are but makes them ‘socially invisible’ by treating them as ‘abject’ and refusing to see their existence…Access Full Text of the Article

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