REVIEW: Bolivia’s Oscar Entry Is a Poetic Look at a Father’s Complicated Grief After Losing His Gay Son

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A quote from late American author and LGBTQ activist Paul Monette (Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story) opens the emotionally resonate drama Tu me manques and sets up the heartbreaking conflict audiences will see play out in a story about a father coming to terms with his gay son’s life after his death.

“Go without hate, but never without rage,” Monette’s words read. “Heal the world.”

Written and directed by Rodrigo Bellott and adapted from his own hit play, Tu me manques takes the nuanced mantra and places it at the heart of the film — a film which Bolivia chose as its official entry for Best International Feature at the 92nd annual Academy Awards. It’s through Bellott’s compassionate and strong-willed script that Tu me manques makes a lasting impression.

Set in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, the powerful first scene introduces viewers to Jorge (Oscar Martinez), a well-dressed father standing in his adult son Gabriel’s room looking inside his luggage. Jorge browses through his son’s clothes. He sees a blonde wig and a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby in his bright red backpack. He then pulls out his son’s laptop, opens it, scans some of his social media pages, and accidentally Skypes Gabriel’s ex-boyfriend Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa) who lives in New York City.

Jorge knows that he is gay, but he’s a homophobe nonetheless. Anger and sadness permeate through his body as he talks to Sebastian face-to-face over video chat.

“It wasn’t my intention to call, nor do I care to get to know you,” he coldly tells him. “The only thing I want from you, after what happened, is to stay away.”

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What has happened — and what Sebastian doesn’t know during the first few minutes of the phone call — is that Gabriel is dead. It’s a chilling moment when Jorge finally reveals the news, not only because it’s the first time Sebastian is hearing about it, but also because it’s delivered from a place of pure indignation. Jorge loved his son, but he hated who he was.

Through flashbacks, audiences get the opportunity to learn about the life Gabriel shared with Sebastian, his interests and how a city like New York afforded him the chance to become the man he always wanted to be. Bellott makes a fascinating decision to cast three actors (Jose Duran, Ben Lukovski and Quim del Rio) to play Gabriel during the film, including during Sebastian’s mourning period. Each of the Gabriel characters wears the same solid maroon polo shirt and dark frame glasses and carries the same bright, red backpack his father looked through before.

“The memories keep on changing as if my brain was making it all up and I’m afraid of forgetting his face,” Sebastian says.

The choice to portray Gabriel as three different men in Tu me manques is a meta reference to a stage play — a piece of touching performance art — that Sebastian is producing in New York about his own life where he has chosen to do the same thing. It’s a strong statement Sebastian is making since homosexuality in Bolivia is such a taboo subject. In fact, a 2017 poll taken by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association revealed that 26% of Bolivians believe people who are in same-sex marriages should be charged as criminals.

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Bellott balances scenes from the past and present well as we watch Gabriel and Sebastian start their relationship and also see Jorge travel to New York to find out what drove his son to kill himself. The script uses some very detailed narration from Sebastian’s perspective to convey his experiences with Gabriel, which is reminiscent of Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s storytelling approach in his 2001 road-trip drama Y tu mamá también.

Inspired by a true story, Tu me manques, a phrase that means “You are missing from me” in French, is sustained by a poetic script acknowledging the gay men Bellott refers to in the film as “emotional contortionists.” These are individuals lost between two worlds — one of which considers their life immoral. This deep pain that arises from their need to make everyone happy soon manifests into an indulgence of emotion during a rehearsal for Sebastian’s play. It’s a beautiful scene and one Bellott executes with a pureness that is hard to fake.

Bellott also explores a unique editing style where many of the characters’ interactions run parallel to one another. In some cases, for example, Sebastian and Jorge speak about Gabriel in the same space that Gabriel and Sebastian are present. Anchoring the entire film is Martinez, whose elegance, grief and outrage blends into one of the most dynamic performances of the year.

Tu me manques is a triumph, not only because of the bold and creative choices it makes to tell its story, but also for its urgent message of acceptance.

Tu me manques is Bolivia’s submission for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.