"The Way He Looks": The Power of Subtlety

in 64th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Sophie Charlotte Rieger

The Panorama section of the Berlinale usually includes a large percentage of films which challenge heteronormativity on different levels. Therefore it is not surprising that this year’s selection included several gay love stories as well the movie Quick Change, a film which depicts our obsession with female beauty from a transgender perspective. But one of these movies clearly stood out from the rest. It was The Way He Looks (Hoje eu quero voltar sozinho), the winner of this year’s FIPRESCI prize for the Panorama section.

The way He Looks.At first sight, Daniel Ribeiro’s movie might not seem that special. You might think that the cinematography is too traditional, or that the classic dramaturgical structure, continuity editing and realistic performances serve to create one of those unoriginal filmic illusions we see in blockbuster cinema or on TV. But to dismiss this film is to ignore an important aspect of it, which becomes even more noticeable when one regards Ribeiro’s work in the context of the Berlinale Panorama.

The Way He Looks can be described as a gay love story, of which there are several in this year’s selection. The fact that the main protagonist is a blind boy gives it a slightly different angle, but nevertheless the director deals with the story of two young men falling in love with each other. Before we analyze what is special about Ribeiro’s version of gay love, let us take a quick look at some of the other competing movies in the Panorama.

The films Unfriend and The Night (Ye) both deal with adolescent homosexuals and their relationships. While the former tells the story of a breakup with fatal consequences, the latter shows a narcissistic gay prostitute in a state of alienation and isolation. Both movies make use of an obvious visual style, working with shaky handheld cameras, black-and-white imagery, narrative ellipses, and a peculiar use of sound and music. In other words, these movies are not only “queer” in the stories they tell, but with respect to their styles. Another Panorama film, Test, could also be labeled queer, although the narrative structure of this film is much more traditional than in Unfriend or The Night. Test uses long sequences of dance performance to communicate the protagonists’ state of anxiety and uncertainty.

There is another element which connects many of the gay and/or transsexual-themed movies in this year’s Panorama. Most of them are dramas which leave the audience little room for catharsis. Test deals with the appearance of the HIV virus in the gay community of the 1980s, and the paranoia which accompanies lack of knowledge about the disease. As explained earlier, Unfriend and The Night show their protagonists in rather negative emotional states. In the Panorama Special section, movies like Land of Storms (Viharsarok) and Yves Saint Laurent present gay heroes who are troubled by their sexualityas well as society’s reaction towards it. All these films focus on problems which are in one way or another connected to the topic of homosexuality.

The Way He Looks is different. The storytelling is quite traditional and Ribeiro’s style is not as experimental as that of the other films, but he still manages to give his movie a queer feeling. The attentive viewer will notice from the beginning that it is a female rather than male gaze which shows us the male body, reinventing it as an object of desire. Long before the audience is told about the hero’s homosexuality, Ribeiro makes us feel that this is a gay movie. The subtlety he employs is beautiful. The director’s approach is very tender, full of love and respect for his protagonists. Ribeiro does not present homosexuality on a stylistic level as an “other” which needs to be portrayed using special cinematic techniques. As a consequence, the audience never questions or judges the hero’s homosexuality, but just accepts it as a normal facet of adolescent life.

Another unusual aspect of the film is its hero’s attitude. A boy who is blind and gay might judge himself and feel sorry for himself, or at least struggle with the unfamiliar feelings he develops for his male classmate. But he does none of this. Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) never questions his awakening homosexuality. Just like any other teenager going through physical and emotional changes during puberty, his only aim is to get close to his loved one. Naturally blindness does complicate the flirting process, but Ribeiro finds beautiful ways to turn the concept of “giving someone the eye” into “getting in touch” with them instead. Even though the film’s title refers to looking, it is very sensual and focuses on the different ways we touch each other, rather than the way we look.

Of course, there is some drama to the story: Leonardo and his mate are bullied for being gay, while Leonardo tries to emancipate himself from his parents and nearly loses his female best friend in the excitement over his first love. But whatever happens, Ribeiro never exaggerates Leonardo’s problems or makes the audience feel sorry for him.

The Way He Looks is a beautifully filmed and well-told love story which might initially seem too “nice” to be challenging. But at the end of the day, it is the implicitness of the concept which has a huge impact on the viewer. Without noticing it, we come to accept Leonardo’s story as an every day one. We identify with the blind, gay boy, even though most of us are probably able to see and some of us may be neither gay nor male. By subtlymaking Leonardo’s story a universal one, Ribeiro challenges heteronormativity to a greater degree than many films in which gayness is an “issue”. The Way He Looks is extraordinary, precisely because it isn’t. As viewers we easily accept the situationsit presents as ordinary and normal. The result is that the audience finds itself not only challenging heteronormative ideas, but overcoming them.

Edited by Lesley Chow