Is there a responsible way to continue portraying gay trauma onscreen? The biggest touchstones of LGBTQ cinema deal with the threats of physical violence and romances broken apart by external situations, to the extent that it still feels radical whenever a film tells a story without a modicum of sadness. But this need for more positive representation, for LGBTQ lives to be documented in their richness as opposed to being merely mined for tragedy, does lead to a conundrum – when so many are still victims of violence and prejudice, is telling a story that ignores the inherent dangers of being open about your identity justifiable?
For all the progress mainstream cinema is making in terms of broaching the supposed taboo of realistically depicting gay characters, the world is moving backwards. When we have parents protesting outside of schools because they don’t want their children learning that it’s possible to love people of the same sex, the news framing this story as a two-sided debate on whether we should be afforded the same rights, and hear various regimes around the world are considering torturing gay people for the crime of having sex, a carefree LGBTQ narrative seems nonsensical. Director Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s film Marilyn is even handed in this vein; it’s based on a true story, but tries its hardest not to transform into reductive misery porn, or emotional exploitation. It offers an intimate look at the life of a queer teenager figuring out their identity in a small town, acknowledging the (often violent) hostility they would face, while still acknowledging the expected identity crisis that is teenage life beyond these harrowing moments.
Walter Rodríguez stars as Marcos, a closeted 17 year old in a rural Argentinian town; seen by his parents as the future of their farm, Marcos is more preoccupied with the realisation of his sexual identity. With a friend, he sneaks out to a carnival celebration dressed in drag, only to fall foul of some local boys who belittle him (the film is named after the nickname they give him, a song he was dancing to at a bar), and eventually assault him. In this aftermath, Marcos’ mother discovers all manner of women’s outfits and makeup kits in his room and burns them – and in the most understated way possible, becomes a one woman conversion camp, trying to encourage a more toxic masculinity while he searches for a relationship in secret.
The film is based on true events, and it unfolds in a lowkey manner that largely avoids heightening the story for dramatic purposes. Rodríguez’ performance is perfectly understated; he has only a handful of lines throughout the film, but his expressive face tells you all you need to know about the ongoing emotional trauma inflicted upon him. Without spoiling the narrative trajectory, the shocking conclusion of the story feels inevitable only in hindsight – of course a boy whose family have tried to mould him into a stereotypical man would deal with his problems in the most drastic way. But in the moment it feels unexpected, and it’s all becomes Rodríguez is skilled at showing a boy gradually growing numb to his inherently expressive emotional state, trying to appear blasé when he’s having to hide his feelings amidst adversity.
Which circles us back to the original question: can gay trauma be portrayed onscreen responsibly, without falling prey to the inherent emotional exploitation of such a concept? Marilyn succeeds because it perfects this tightrope balance. It bluntly shows the toil taken on a boy who has suffered physical and emotional abuse for being who he is, while acknowledging that there would still be a richness to this life beyond the tragedy, a sense of hope for a better future that makes all the suffering bearable. There are many stories about gay trauma that feel like emotional abuse – Martín Rodríguez Redondo refrains from the horror as much as he can within a story like this, making the character study all the richer as a result.