Veneno

Directors: Javier Ambrossi, Javier Calvi (Spain). Year of Release: 2020

Valencia, 1996. A young boy is at the top of the stairs looking at his parents watching tv. It’s some sort of entertainment / interview show, where a trans performer (I can’t think of a better description of what she does than “perform”) is holding court. Just as the boy is starting to get interested, his mother climbs the stairs to take him to bed, reminding him that he needs to be at school in the morning.

Valencia, 2006, ten years later. A teenage girl Amparo is just hanging out with a male friend when a larger than life figure sashays past. “You’re her, aren’t you?”, Amparo cries out. “Veneno from the telly”. Veneno approaches them and grabs Amparo’s friends cock approvingly. Amparo is immediately onto her phone to text message another male friend that she’s just met his greatest idol. The person he’s been following since he saw her on telly ten years before.

Madrid, 1996. Faela returns to work early after a recent pregnancy. She seems insecure about her job, especially as there’s a new woman who looks to be trying to replace her. They’re both journalists on a tacky tv series which is sending them to interview lesbians, prostitutes and anyone else from whom they can derive a salacious story. Faela looks very unhappy about having to do this, but at the same time, she wants to keep hold of her job.

Faela decides that the lesbian story that she’s been sent to cover isn’t interesting, so drags her photographer to the red light area and starts trying to interview prostitutes, clients, and anyone who’s prepared to stop and talk. No-one is prepared until up pops Veneno, striding through the queue of cars, tits out, telling most of the people soliciting her that they don’t have a chance of getting any of her. Offered the chance to hold court, Veneno jumps at the opportunity.

Back to Valencia, and Amparo and friend are on a pilgrimage to try and track down Cristina, the women who has reinvented herself as Veneno. They get a tip off about her address, but the woman living there says she’s never heard of any Cristina. But when Veneno hears that she’s been visited by fans, she rushes out and drags the young pair back into the flat. The awestruck young man explains that he’s been a fan since forever and announces that he will now be called Vaeria.

Back in Madrid, after a bad experience when a gang of prostitutes and their pimp objected to being filmed, Faela is sent back to lure Veneno for an interview. Her photographer says, not without a sigh of relief, that he’s needed elsewhere, so Faela takes her young pretender Machús with her. Veneno is at first wary of appearing on television, as her mother has never seen her as a woman, but soon takes to the chat show scene like a duck to water.

The rest of the film continues to swap between different years, and increasingly spends time in the past, charting the adolescent experiences of Joselito, who would later grow up to be Cristina and then Veneno. It is a story of an unsympathetic family and the struggle of two gay friends who have been excluded from society to survive in a conservative coastal Andalucian village.

And, although this is apparently based on a true story, large chunks of it may just be figments of the writer’s and director’s imagination. There is a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of the film. So, when young boys apply scissors to their cassocks to create mini-dresses to wear inside church, you do get the feeling that someone is letting their imagination run riot.

But is it any good? Well, yes, but only to a point. On the plus side, it’s all fun, and given the current political attacks on trans rights, it’s always a Good Thing to have a film which celebrates it’s trans characters. The ending is a little too sentimental for me, and there’s a little too many heavy-handed symbolic acts of letting birds free from their cages, but on the surface at least, it is a bold statement against anyone telling you how to behave.

So it’s great that this film exists, and well worth anyone’s time – and yet, and yet. This originally appeared as a mini-series – if 8 one hour programmes could really justify the word “mini”. And although the film is now less than 2 hours, you get the feeling that the director was loath to cut anything. So there is so much stuff flung at us that we’re barely given the time to pause and reflect. This is not helped by the continuous swapping between different dates.

I left having the feeling that maybe this was something that would be better shown in 8 hours. It all just felt a bit too rushed. It was also all over the place – albeit in a good way. A chaotic life is probably best celebrated without too much attention to structure. You get the feeling that it could do with a bit more coherence, but equally that this might rob it of the magic that it has. Yes, there are mistakes, but they are glorious mistakes, so it’s probably all worthwhile.

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