When the words “based on a true story” are attached to an LGBTQ+ movie, you know you’re in for a depressing journey. In fact, while I’m sure others will be able to come up with one, I can’t think of a single story matching those criteria that ends with a smile and happiness. That’s pretty sad, when you think about it. So when this Argentinian movie called Marilyn opened with that line, I knew tragedy was just around the corner.
Marcos (Walter Rodríguez) is a seventeen-year-old living in rural Argentina, with his mother Olga (Catalina Saavedra), his father Carlos (Germán de Silva) and his slightly older brother Carlitos (Ignacio Giménez). They work on a farm, a hard life of manual labor for most of the family. But Marcos is smart and his parents are focused on him getting an education in order to pull them out of poverty. Carlitos is disdainful of his more petite and book smart younger brother, while Olga uses Marcos’ eye for fashion and ability to sew to her advantage.
Tragedy strikes the house as Carlos dies from a sudden heart attack, leaving the family in a very destitute and dire situation. Meanwhile, Marcos is discovering his sexuality and his identity by dressing up in woman’s clothes, putting on a wig and dancing with his best friend Laura (Josefina Paredes) at the local carnival. While dancing, he catches the eye of Facundo (Rodolfo García Werner) the potentially closeted son of a rancher friend of the family and dances on him. On the way home, Marcos is accosted by Facundo and his group of friends, who leer at him and call him Marilyn before sexually abusing him.
Marcos’s mother discovers his gender fluidity and burns all of his feminine clothes. As the home situation becomes both financially and socially dire, Marilyn charts Marcos’ experiments in sexuality and gender while examining the ruthless life and bigotry of rural communities in Argentina.
Marilyn is filmed with an utter lack of sentimentality by director Martín Rodríguez Redondo and cinematographer Guillermo Saposnik, capturing the events happening to and around Marcos in a way that completely sidesteps the melodrama a “based on a true story” narrative tends to have. The story written by Redondo, Mara Pescio and Mariana Docampo mixes in rural problems and the harsh reality of life of that life with Marcos’ burgeoning sexuality. As Marcos’ family becomes more and more destitute after the death of Carlos, the family dynamics get more harsh and severe. Poaching, unemployment, rural decay become an unholy cocktail when mixed with more typical bigotry and sexual oppression.
Marcos is not looked at as a person but a commodity. Olga accepts his help with fashion and hemming but not the person that comes with it. Even before sexuality is brought into the equation, his parents see his education not as self actualization but as a means to a fiscal end. So when his sexuality starts to manifest, he becomes less and less useful in his mother's eyes. Less and less of a person.
Walter Rodríguez plays Marcos with a quiet determination and devastation. The only time he is unfettered by the world is when he’s freely dancing as a woman or finding solace in the arms of a new and openly gay boyfriend Federico (Andrew Bargsted). Outside of these fleeting moments, his face is a stoic mask. A wall he has built up that barely contains his seething rage at his family and the world.
I made a decision earlier this year that I would focus my attention on happier LGBTQ+ stories. Stories where, maybe, sexuality isn’t a plot point but just flavor. Stories that are richer and more thematic than simply dealing with homophobia or transphobia, etc. But the sad reality is that this is life for a large number of gay and trans people across the world. The fact that this is based on a true story, one that is documented, and tries to present an understanding for how and why that situation played out makes this a more well-developed and pertinent narrative. It’s depressive as hell and the ending, for those who don’t know the story, is ambiguously and shockingly abrupt. But the performances and the filmmaking involved raise the story and make it worth it, depressing subject matter and all.