Two of the more ambitious movies at this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival prove that the handy (perhaps overly so) critical phrase “sophomore slump” is never entirely true. If even true at all: João Pedro Rodrigues’s “Two Drifters,” a follow-up to his 2000 debut feature “O Fantasma,” is magnificent, and reflective of a formidable talent in bloom — it’s still not fully clear what more Rodrigues has to offer, because he’s added twisted humor and unique spirituality to the carnal urban exploration of his first movie. Juliá n Hernández’s “Broken Sky” comes a bit closer to the dreaded sophomore slump, though. Call it sophomore slumber — albeit one that contains moments of pure-cinema reverie.
Hernández had made a decade’s worth of shorts and one 53-minute featurette (2000’s “It Was a Time When Dreams Gave Way to Long Sleepless Nights…”) when he supposedly arrived with 2003’s “A Thousand Clouds of Peace.” That film is an often gorgeous Cocteau-like color-leeched portrait of a young man alone in Mexico City which, amongst other things, makes great use of music, mining the emotion present in seemingly campy pop when young Gerardo (Juan Carlos Ortuño) buys a 45 of Sara Montiel’s “Nena” — including the lyric “A fearless man swore he’d love me to death” — at an outdoor market. In contrast, Hernández’s new movie, “Broken Sky,” is a departure from his habitual epic titles, and from his trademark black-and-white — the color here is glossy. It has no big diva moments — instead, it sets heartbreak to Dvorak (though “A Thousand Clouds…” did make similar use of Bach) and a disco beat.
“Broken Sky”‘s title may be shorter, but its examination of busted-up young love is stretched to lengths that some viewers might find silly, if not outright tedious. Over the course of 140 minutes, Hernández tracks the near-wordless strolling, gazing, dancing, and fucking of another Gerardo (googly-eyed Miguel Angel Hoppe, whose amazing face reaches from masculine to feminine and from ugliness to great beauty) and his boyfriend Jonas (Fernando Arroyo). All would be twinkly in first love land if Jonas didn’t have eyes for a random dance floor hookup, and if his waning attentions didn’t drive Gerardo into the arms of a sad-faced admirer named Sergio (Alejandro Rojo).
“Broken Sky”‘s narrative seems so shallow that it verges on parody — the emotional nuances of these pouty fly-by-nights seem, at most, spelled out by which t-shirts they choose to wear on a given day (Hoppe has the best ones). It’s enough to make you wonder just how generic gay identity is becoming. But thanks to the ceaseless, dancing motion of Alejandro Cantu’s camera, which performs slow pirouettes that repeat in evocative ways, Hernández’s film near-miraculously derives emotional impact from the criss-crossings of these sketchily detailed “personalities.” Viewers with the patience to make it to the end will be rewarded with scenes that achieve great emotional resonance — transforming the principal duo into archetypes and thus yielding a few incisive, near-classic visions of what it’s like to break up with a live-in lover.
Hernández doesn’t rate a mention in Sergio de la Mora’s compelling new critical study “Cinemachismo: Masculinity and Sexuality in Mexican Film,” though de la Mora’s book does discuss the work of a predecessor such as Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (who ventured into explicit video realms with 2002’s “eXXXorcismos”) and also casts a queer eye at the appeal of Gael Garcia Bernal. For all of its foibles, “Broken Sky” serves further notice that contemporary Mexican cinema — gay or not — is flourishing in a flamboyant manner. Hernández’s ceaselessly tracking (or cruising?) visions of the city don’t match style with content on the level of Carlos Reygadas’s “Battle in Heaven” or the Bresson-worthy town-to-country parable of Ricardo Benet’s “News from Afar” (which has a memorable queer subplot), but they’re still promising.
If Hernández has a place in contemporary Mexican cinema, João Pedro Rodrigues seems like an odd duck in Portugal. His explicit erotic adventure of a Lisbon garbage collector “O Fantasma” will never be confused for an understated work by that country’s legendary grandfather figure Manuel de Oliveira – in fact, Pasolini’s “Teorema” and Tsai Ming-liang’s “The River” are more apt reference points. With “Two Drifters,” Rodrigues formidably serves notice that he’s capable of sick humor that’s as piercing as Fassbinder’s and dark romanticism that even Hitchcock wouldn’t raise his nose at and dismiss. He’s also uncorked the soundtrack of the year, one that turns Andy Williams’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” into great opera before moving on to one of Big Star’s most aching ballads, a children’s choral version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and finally a moment that will assure you’ll never hear “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” signature Mancini moment, “Moon River,” quite the same way again.
Holly Golightly as a butch top? “Two Drifters” is the unfortunate English-language title given to a work originally named after its chief character, Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira). And what a character she is — long-limbed, drop-dead gorgeous, flat-out crazy, and more than a little infantile, first roller-skating into our sights on the job at a blindingly-lit megamarket, but soon rampaging through the shattered life of Rui (Nuno Gil) with wild claims that she’s pregnant by his dead gay boyfriend, Pedro (Joã o Carreira). Odete’s misbehavior at a wake merely sets the stage for baby-shop thievery, late night cemetery visits, and more, all accompanied by gusts of wind that hint her actions are being blown by forces different than the oral ones acting upon grief-stricken Rui during an expertly-framed steamroom scene.
Built around that very first spine-tinglingly glorious and absurd glimpse of Odete – coupled with her name in bold red capital letters — the first ten-or-so minutes of “Two Drifters” are the most impressive fusion of style and content I’ve seen in a movie this year, so if Rodrigues sometimes struggles to keep his many wild conceits in working order, it matters little. He’s finding his way with dialogue, but he puts his actors — who tend to have supermodel-with-a-wicked-twist looks — through some paces that François Ozon and Pedro Almodóvar should witness in order to get back in touch with their most perversely playful dark sides.
To put it another way, Rodrigues is drawn to characters who aren’t just gay, or queer in terms of sexual behavior, but certifiably insane. A phantom pregnancy isn’t the stuff of your average gay fest film, or fest film, period. It is, however, in keeping with the work of a filmmaker who gave a very physical representation of a different type of phantom — desire — in his previous work. Odete, like Sergio in “O Fantasma,” offers Rodgriues a chance to view life and Lisbon from a free-ranging and unconventional perspective. That’s a both-sides-now view of the world that today’s commerciality-crazed gay cinema — so Stepford-y normal that it’s abnormal — could learn from.
Two Drifters plays Frameline30 Thurs/22, 10:30 p.m., Castro.
Broken Sky plays Frameline30 Wed/21, 9:15 p.m., CineArts @ Empire.