The 2004 Argentine movie “Vereda Tropical,” directed by Javier Torres in an unpredictable (and difficult to hear) mix of Spanish and Portuguese, shows Argentine-born writer Manuel Puig living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the 1980s. A title at the start marks the year as 1980, and one at the end reports that Puig died in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1992 (at the age of 57). That is, indeed, where he died, but he died there two years earlier. If so basic and easily checked a detail is wrong, there is little to give confidence that the rest of the movie is factual.
Fabio Aster, who plays Puig, has some facial resemblance to Puig and was balding similarly, though I think is hunkier (with especially strong legs). Though the movie Puig is fey, I also think the original Puig was even more flamboyant a queen. He is pampered by the rich and glamorous May (Gigi Rua), visited by Argentine movie star Kari Kerr (Mimi Ardu), and treated with great gentleness by literary scholar Teresa (Silvia Buarque).
At the start he is pursuing a man who broke with him when he discovered that Puig was covertly recording their interactions (research, according to Puig). Puig breaks with Dudi (Revero Riveiro), his bearded lover who is married to a woman and has children, claiming to have found a new love. Dudi only asks that no one ever learn that he is the man the recordings of their interactions the author made. In his way Dudi loves Manuel. Manuel’s new “lover,” Roy (Jonathas Mello, whose image dominates the cover of the American DVD shown here) politely spurns a tentative advance (touching his face) and urges Manuel, who has hired him to paint two tables red, to find someone who feels for Manuel as Manuel feels for him.
Manuel is also fagbashed when he cruises a man who takes umbrage, though earlier a young hunk cruises him and takes him off to have sex.
Manuel’s upscale apartment has two posters of Rita Hayworth (and one of Che Guevara) and he seems to watch “Gilda” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” often. There are some books in the apartment, but no indication he ever reads, and nothing about what he is writing on his typewriter. Someone unfamiliar with Puig’s novels would have no idea what his work dealt with or was like from watching the movie. There is a text read aloud in the movie, but it is an 1892 letter from Rimbaud’s sister Isabelle (a test for Teresa).
The movie portrays Manuel Puig as somewhat of a sexual predator, seeking younger males to penetrate him. The covert recordings seem more predatory to me, though I wonder if they are an invention of the screenplay.
The relief at testing negative for HIV, though it seems to take place in 1980, before any cases of what became known as AIDS were noticed, is biographically accurate. (He died of a heart attack, following gall bladder surgery.)
Like Reinaldo Arenas, whose memoir Before Night Falls was made into a much better movie (with Javier Bardem playing Arenas), Puig hated the dictators ruling his native country, and was restive in exile. Both wanted to be taken (and loved?) by machos (who preferred women as sexual partners). Arenas had difficulty finding such partners in New York City, whereas Puig should not have had difficulty finding them in Rio. That they would want money in exchange for use of their phalluses was not a problem, and Dudi as portrayed in the movie comes as close to a predominantly straight partner who loves as well as penetrates a queen as the real world is likely to offer.
The author of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (his best book IMO, first published in 1968) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1991, his most famous, because of the movie with William Hurt’s unjustly Oscar-winning performance as the jailed drag queen Molina) wanted romance that existed only in movie fantasies. Like Blanche DuBois, he did not want reality, though he was more aware of wanting animalistic males (Stanley Kowalskis, Latin American incarnations) taking him than was she.
The unhappily aging queen with some fag hag friends and frustrations about young men not wanting him, rather than the joyous and reportedly very funny writer, is what the movie presents.
BTW, “Vereda” in Spanish means path or sidewalk (or coercing someone into line). At one point in the movie, Puig says he is going to write a very tropical novel, presumably Cae la noche tropical (Tropical Night Falling), which was his last, published in 1988 (six years after Sangre de amor correspondido [Blood of Requited Love] the seventh novel he had published in fourteen years, which is to say his productivity dropped considerably around the time of the 1985 movie of Kiss of the Spider Woman [El beso de la mujer araña]).
I’d recommend “Howl” and “Before Night Falls” instead of “Vereda Tropical.” As much as I dislike William Hurt’s performance in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” it is offset by Raúl Julia’s political prisoner and the stories (movies) Molina tells him, to I’d have to recommend it above “Vereda Tropical.” Writers are self-centered and prone to using others, and showing how literary voices emerge is not easy, so movies about writers generally are not about their writing, even if the authors are shown writing (or throwing her typewriter out the window as Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman, did in “Julia”).
The earlier reviews of movies about writers in my series this week
began with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (On the Road), continued with Graham Greene (Dangerous Edge), J. D. Salinger and Dalton Trumbo.