On screen: Gender-bending made easy | AspenTimes.com

On screen: Gender-bending made easy

Stewart Oksenhorn

Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN “You need a mask, you’ve got to wear your mask,” Marieta sings in Spanish filmmaker Ramón Salazar’s “20 Centimeters.” Marieta is, in fact, wearing her mask as she sings the words. Marieta, as much as anyone, needs a mask to protect her from having to stare directly into harsh reality.

Marieta, played by Mónica Cervera, is a woman stuck inside a man’s body – and stuck with a particular body part that inspires the film’s title. Her home life, for all its oddities, isn’t terrible: Her roommate is a sensitive dwarf, Tomás (Miguel O’Dogherty) for whom she has sisterly affections. The neighbors who share her drab Madrid apartment building are all up to no good but provide a hardscrabble camaraderie. Outside the apartment, though, life’s cruelty plagues Marieta. She works as a low-ticket prostitute, selling her services to truckers and blue-collar workers, and competing with other prostitutes who are not all of the heart-of-gold variety. Like Bree, the pre-operative transsexual in 2005’s “Transamerica,” Marieta devotes her life to earning the money for the operation that will unite her body with her self-identity. But for an unattractive, unskilled transvestite, jobs are in limited number. Tomás’ get-rich-quick scheme – scalping opera tickets – is a bit of fantasy. Topping it all, Marieta is a narcoleptic, and she falls asleep while meeting with the hard-ass woman at the employment agency.

But those sleeping habits are also her savior. In her dreams, which wash over her in her most trying times, Marieta is transformed into the singing-and-dancing star of her own elaborate, old-school stage numbers. In these bits, her supporting cast consists of gorgeous men, all admiring and adoring her. They are escapist fantasies, but spiked with a dose of the sort of realistic wisdom Marieta requires. These reveries are her “mask” – a necessary retreat from real life, a source of hope. Marieta eventually does find strength in her dream persona.Cervera is fearless as Marieta, and Salazar effectively blends realism and fantasy in “20 Centimeters.” But the dream sequences become routine, and Marieta’s sexuality is such a muddle that even the viewer isn’t sure what to pull for: Her operation? The hot-and-cold affair with the hot produce packer (Pablo Puyol)? The screw-it-all-and-deal-with-it-later escape to Brazil, as promised by her shady neighbor?

With its female-centric focus, gender bending and fantasy sequences, “20 Centimeters” is an obvious nod to another Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar. But Almodóvar is still alive and at the top of his game – his “Volver,” which has yet to have a proper opening in Aspen, is among the best of 2006 – and doesn’t require this sort of homage. Almodóvar himself could easily have squeezed more laughs, hotter sex and deeper meaning out of Marieta and her masked life.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com