Warning: Spoilers follow.
The other night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Daniel Ribeiro’s touching film The Way He Looks (original title Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), a Brazilian film about a young blind man who finds himself falling in love with his best friend. Based on Ribeiro’s short film entitled Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho, the film is Brazil’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Who would have thought we would see this day? We can but hope that it will win the statuette.
The film explores the experiences of young Leonardo as he attempts to forge an independent life for himself away from his overprotective parents while also contending with the jealousy of his best friend Giovana as he grows ever closer to newcomer Gabriel. Gradually, as he grows closer to Gabriel, they must both contend with the deepening of their feelings for one another, until at last they admit to their feelings for one another and the film ends with them defying the school bullies by holding hands as they walk home.
Through both its cinematography and its score, The Way He Looks evokes all of the angst and anxiety that young love, especially young queer love, evokes in those who experience it. However, it does so in a way that never comes across as trite or overdone. Much like Weekend, another film that relied on solid storytelling and subtle aesthetics to explore the intricacies of gay love, The Way He Looks takes its time with its story, fully fleshing out its characters and their motivations, and it’s clear the the director and writers actually like these characters and want us to as well. This is not to suggest that they are perfect–even the hero, Leonardo, comes across as somewhat ungrateful to his parents and their obvious concern for him–but they are characters with whom we can not only identify, but whom we can actually recognize as humans. If (and this is a contentious question) we as LGBTQI consumers of media want well-rounded characters to represent us to the populace at large, then I think this is just the film for that purpose.
Aside from its generous and gentle politics, however, the film also contains a great deal of aesthetic sophistication that grants it multiple layers of pleasure for the savvy queer filmgoer. Two scenes in particular struck me as poetic in their construction. In one, Leo pleasures himself while embracing the hooded sweatshirt Gabriel has left behind, and in the other Gabriel stares at Leo’s nude back as he showers even as we, the spectators, are invited to identify with his gaze and with the burgeoning desire that he cannot deny and cannot yet accept . The composition of the former shot looks as if it could have been lifted straight out of a painting, while also suggesting that desire does not always work on the level of sight, thus allowing the latter scene to explore desire at the visual level. The visual sophistication of these scenes, and the underlying nuance of the film’s portrayal of visual impairment, allows it to move out of the realm of the purely romantic into the realm of the sublime.
What emerges from this portrayal, I would suggest, is a vision of what the representation of queer love might come to look like now that the acceptance of LGBTQI people has reached a significant high point in many places (remember that Brazil has legalized gay marriage). It is refreshing to see a high-profile film that does not rely on the queer tragedy trope that haunted representations of us for so long. Though I love Brokeback Mountain, it too relied on a tragic narrative that highlighted the violence and death that have for so long clung to representations of same-sex love. This is not to suggest that these representations don’t have a place–we should always remember our history–but instead to argue that we need to diversify what we want to see in terms of representation.
Above all, however, The Way He Looks is a poignant and beautiful testament to the power of young queer love. As I sat there in the audience with my boyfriend and well over a hundred other queer spectators, I felt my heart swell with joy at the feeling of community and camaraderie that permeated the gathering. Even now that it’s 2014 and we as a community have won many hard-won battles, I still feel a little tremble of fulfillment when I see gay love depicted on screen and know that there are others in the audience with whom I can share that experience.