Cinema’s relationship with those who identify themselves as being part of the LGBT community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) has been a fractious, often heartbreaking, one. For decades the cinema chose to ignore, or vilify from a bigoted distance, the lifestyle, beliefs and capacity for love of those who existed outside the heterosexual majority. Despite the presence of so many talented LGBT artists in the creative industries that nourished filmmaking, the screen reality was one of mincing villains and possible predators. But as society’s attitudes changed, what was shown on our screens changed as well, quickly introducing a raft of stories and experiences that redressed a deficit that had been tolerated for far too long.
The Year in Queer Cinema
While mainstream cinema in many countries still resorts to hackneyed portrayals, there’s now a mass of diverse movies that speak not just to LGBT people, but which use their stories to impart humanist outcomes. In SBS’s forthcoming Mardi Gras season, a quartet of films – Bad Education (Tuesday March 6), C.R.A.Z.Y. (Tuesday March 13), Undertow (Tuesday March 20), and The Country Teacher ( Tuesday March 27) – traverse timelines and continents to focus on individuals who are more than just their sexual orientation.
Few directors have been important to that change than Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. From the end of the 1970s onwards Almodovar’s post-punk screwball milieu made no assumptions about sexuality. With 2003’s masterful Bad Education he returns to those years, but what his early films treated as farce is now tragedy, with the added caveat that to make someone’s story into a film, no matter the intention, is an inherently cruel act. Starting in 1980 Madrid, where a young filmmaker, Enrique (Fele Martinez), is contacted by his boyhood love, Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), the movie adds reflective layers, playing out memories and confessions, memoirs and their screen adaptations.
The endemic corruption of the Franco regime hangs over the film, with Enrique and Ignacio’s boyhood affection in a Catholic boarding school poisoned by the presence of a lustful priest, eventually given voice and a pathological desire to possess by Lluis Homar. Bad Education is in turns funny and tragic, libidinous and repressed, but more than anything – and this is what gives it true worth – it’s given over to a truthful despair. Both individuals and countries can play roles, you learn, but the masks don’t come off just because the curtain has fallen.
Jean-Marc Vallee’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (a feature that has been previously noted for its understanding of how music can speak to emotional anguish) goes back to the 1960s and 1970s to examine a plight experienced by so many LGBT teenagers, who find their budding sexuality at odds with the strictures demanded by parents and community. In the Quebec household overseen by patriarch Gervais (Michael Cote) the perceived problem among five sons is not the amoral Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), but his younger brother, Zach (Marc-Andre Grondin), whose crime in his father’s eyes is an absence of masculinity.
In this 2005 film, a young Zac literally prays to be what his dad wants, and as he grows up he denies his sexuality and rebukes the advances of other young men. Zac buries himself in heterosexual framing even as he tries to impart the truth to his father by acting out on his true desires. The closet is the pat term for where Zac places his instincts, but as so many young people have learnt that kind of shorthand doesn’t explain the pain involved. Zac eventually starts a relationship with his friend Michelle (Natasha Thompson), but succeeds only in hurting both of them when an argument with his father makes the unspoken truth clear. The story ends with rapprochement, but it is a hard road there.
Some of the most soulful invocations of the gay experience have come from Latin countries, where a fierce sense of masculinity has made homosexual men a target for often violent derision. That barrier is lyrically explored in Javier Fuentes-Leon’s impressive debut, 2009’s Undertow, where the homophobia in a Peruvian fishing town is eventually circumvented. Miguel (Cristian Mercado) has a pregnant wife, but he’s secretly in a relationship with the locale’s sole, scorned gay resident, Santiago (Manolo Cardona). When the latter accidentally drowns, his spirit returns to visit Miguel to ask for his help.
The movie, which has fun with stereotypical South American traits of male behaviour, uses the continent’s distinguished history of literary magic realism to turn what could have been a light comedy or a trite drama into something more mysteriously affecting. There are scenes where the symbolism is somewhat heavy, but the performances by the two leads galvanise your interest as Miguel has to navigate a path between head and heart, between the living and the dead.
A stereotype the mainstream cinema often bluntly evokes is the gay man as licentious hedonist, intent only on having a good time and supplying some pithy commentary to the problems of their heterosexual friends. The titular educator of Bohdan Slama’s The Country Teacher refutes those assumptions: in this observational Czech drama a 30something gay teacher quits a prestigious post in Prague for a position in a small country town. As quietly played by Pavel Liska, Petr wants to escape urban spaces, physical pleasure and pointless trysts.
Reticent to discuss himself or interact with others, Petr is interested in pastoral solitude, a stance only strengthened after he is visited by a former lover whose presence reminds him of what he is not missing. Slama’s direction catches the rhythms of rural life – particularly a realistic scene where a cow gives birth to a calf after a virtual tug of war – and the lives of those who choose to live there, for better or worse, but what slowly becomes clear is that Petr cannot commune alone forever, and that he has a need for genuine love that will move him towards the diffident teenage son of his landlady. Peter is not as high-minded as he might believe himself to be, and that uncertainty over beliefs and actions is essential. Having been so crudely ignored, LGBT cinema can’t respond with its own archetypes. It needs genuine, nuanced characters, however flawed they may be, to show the way forward.
SBS TWO Screening Schedule
Tuesday 6 March, 9.30pm
Bad Education (2004)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho
Tuesday 13 March, 9.30pm
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Marc-Andre Grondin, Michael Cote, Danielle Proulx
Tuesday 20 March, 9.30pm
Director: Javier Fuentes-León
Starring: Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo
Tuesday 27 March, 9.30pm
The Country Teacher (2008)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Pavel Liska, Zuzana Bydzovská, Ladislav Sedivý