DON’T CALL ME SON is an intimate film. The story, the characters, the setting … all personal. The filmmaking… close-up and exclusive of clutter in dialogue, plot and technique. One of the films chosen for Queer Screen’s 24th Mardi Gras Film Festival, this offering from Brazil, subtitled from the Portuguese, has been on the Festival Circuit since its premier at the Berlin Film Festival in February last year. At that event it won the Teddy which Berlinale’s site calls ‘the most outstanding queer film prize in the world’. It was in Australia for last year’s Melbourne Film Festival and has been selected for 20 Festivals from Transatlantyk to Ljubljana.
True to the intimacy which pervades the film, the film’s protagonist is in tight shot as we follow him through a party before the credits. The colours pulse blue and sexy, the music thumps distantly and he is wearing a confusingly closely feathered bird headpiece. He accepts an intimate hug from a male partner and a deep kiss from a female dancer. Then the realism sets in. Suddenly he and the girl are having sex in a starkly white, brightly lit bathroom. As the camera tilts down from the activity it is clear that he is wearing lacy female underwear.
This is Pierre and it becomes evident that he is currently gender fluid and exploring options within himself through his behaviour, his choice of relationships and by the manipulation of his private body and external appearance. Presently he is seventeen and lives with his younger sister and mother in a disadvantaged area of the city where they are a strong and loving family unit. Then it is brutally revealed that Pierre was stolen at birth. Pierre is Felipe and he has another family who have prayed for his return for eighteen years. It seems from here on that Pierre/Felipe has limited choices and is never asked what he wants and he pulls further and further inside himself.
The deliberacy of the filmmaking puts most characters in close-up, their surroundings mostly irrelevant after some locale setting but Pierre’s inner world is vast. He is often silent as dialogue and events swirl around him. He appears detached, immersed in an inner world which is so well expressed by newcomer Naomi Nero, who won best actor at the Valladolid International Film Festival. Nero is a seethe of emotions and Felipe’s coming out is public, sudden and unsupported. The moment when he/she finally lets fly and confronts identity and new circumstances is gripping and emotional.
Google’s translation of the original title (Mãe só há uma) is ‘Mum, There’s Only One’ and this is clear in the casting of Dani Nefussi as both mothers. Pierre’s mother, Aracy is loving and close, Felipe’s mother, Glória, is trying to give him space yet driven to understand how he sees himself. Nefussi gives both women compassion, confusion and the weight of their histories or secrets. His lost father (Matheus Nachtergaele) too is searching for a point of contact: music, sports? Nachtergaele carefully handles the delicate balance that the new situation brings to his family.
Pierre/Felipe’s lost sister and new brother are both beautifully drawn characters and their separate stories illuminate the film. Lais Dias as Jacqueline is warm and nurturing. She cooks for him when he is at a loss and speaks for him when he is mute with bewilderment. This other worldly quality, a contemplation of ideas rather than a reaction to the present, is a melancholy which she doesn’t understand, and simply accepts in him. Also accepting from the beginning of their relationship is Joca (Daniel Botlho). This new brother has his own social issues but he works at forming a bond and is gently non-judgemental .
There is very little exposition in DON’T CALL ME SON; important events happen off screen and the audience are witnesses to the aftermath. Director Anna Muylaert, who also wrote the screenplay, has given space for the viewer to enter the story and intuit what has gone on. There is no music, other than realist audio, and a choice has been made to blur or obfuscate non-essential characters and settings. A lovely example is the media pack that greets Pierre/ Felipe. They are faceless with backs turned, faces covered by cameras or blurred by movement.
The last time we see Aracy she has her back turned in her cell and the camera just allows her shame and fears to permeate the screen. DON’T CALL ME SON is such a humanistic work, which by telling a complicated coming of age story without weighing down the film with storytelling, brings new insights into the struggle of young people as they strive to establish their identity/identities (gender, sexual et al) and make their own, very personal way in the world.
DON’T CALL ME SON plays as part of the Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival on Friday 17th February at 7pm at Event Cinemas George Street.