The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival screened its final film last Thursday evening. Tamara, a Venezuelan LGBTQ+ biopic, drew inspiration from the life of Tamara Adrián, a transgender woman elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2015. She became the first transgender person to hold elected office in Venezuela and only the second transgender member of a national legislature in the Western Hemisphere. The closing night screening was introduced by the film’s director, executive producer, lead actor, and supporting actress (Elia K. Schneider, José Ramón Novoa, Luis Fernández, and Prakriti Maduro, respectively).
Tamara provides its viewers with glimpses of its protagonist’s adult life at different periods of her gender expression. It begins with her return from Paris and her life as a trans woman there—which she had begun to explore—to Venezuela, where she again adopted the cis-normative male dress, behavior, and identity she wished to leave behind. Going by her birth name, Teo, she quickly finds success working at a law firm and settles down with a wife and child. This period of her life is cut short by the death of her quietly supportive mother, who implores Teo on her deathbed to stop living in discontentment and pursue her truth. The film chronicles Tamara’s joy, suffering, romance, and heartbreak as she undergoes her full transition into womanhood.
With her film, Schneider casts an important light on the uniquely intersectional experience of being transgender in Latin America. I congratulate the film for creating scenes and dialogues that capture how one specific set of experiences is informed by another. Religious prejudices are presented not as individual attitudes but as cultural stances. Progressive characters still find the means to express socially condoned transphobia. Even scenes that cater more heavily than others to the cisgender gaze have value as reflections of a cultural climate.
The standard cisgender Latin American viewer should expect to feel some guilt or dissatisfaction with their culture upon watching Tamara. That was the most difficult part of writing this review—an acceptance that certain elements of Latin American culture, as endearing and valuable as they seem, are inherently at odds with queerness in its many forms. The full artistic and informative potential of Tamara can only be properly appreciated once the proud Latin American viewer can swallow this bitter pill. Such a culturally keen and optimistic viewer does not readily want to admit that the traumatic obstacles forced upon Tamara are a direct product of Latin American culture—and in some cases, uniquely so.
Yet Tamara is not without its flaws, some more evident than others. The film’s main challenge is that of tone. It is not simply that the film lacks a coherent tone: Tamara feels like a mélange of three tonally different films about Tamara Adrián which, given the proper treatment, would have each been outstanding in its own right. However, when strung together and forced to behave as one film, the charm of each cinematic moment gets swallowed up by that scene’s responsibility to cohere with its adjacent scenes and with the film as a whole. Tamara also suffers in its chaotic pace. Its economy of storytelling allows it to revel in its cinematic moments without getting bogged down by its more expository scenes, but the inconsistency in pacing causes the film to start off slow and on an unimpressive footing. Simply put, Tamara could have benefitted from a sharper wit and a more discerning vision.
The last matter of contention I wish to discuss is, depending on the reader, either the least or the most pressing one affecting the film. Tamara is gutsy, but it could have been even more gutsy. There is an abundance of scenes that address the transgender experience somewhat implicitly and not explicitly, or somewhat externally and not internally. The film can never seem to shake the discomfiting, even vaguely exploitative, sense of voyeurism that always accompanies films created by people who do not directly embody the experiences their films seek to communicate. No amount of intimate bathroom shots of Tamara tucking her genitals in front of the mirror, or scenes of Tamara wistfully admiring a transgender prostitute’s new breast implants, can make up for that lack of authorial authenticity. This being said, both Schneider and Fernandez, with his masterful acting chops, do manage to execute such scenes meant to evoke a uniquely transgender subjectivity with a proper blend of professionalism, respect, and heart. These create better-than-average iterations of such scenes than we might expect from well-meaning cisgender filmmakers.
As imperfect as Tamara may be, I do not regret watching a single moment of it. Some scenes felt familiar, like the telephoto-style crowd shot of a very womanly Tamara walking to work à la Tootsie. Some scenes felt new (and a little shocking), like the depiction of her gender reassignment surgery. A handful of scenes made a lasting impression on me. At the end of the day, once the dusty cloud of artistic discourse and film theory settles, impact is one of the most important elements of any film. And Tamara had great impact.