January 16, 2024.
This review contains spoilers. There is discussion of potentially distressing themes. If you are located in the USA or have a VPN, you can watch this film here.
Bauer, the trans male protagonist.
Before I review this film, I have to thank Adrian for recommending it to me! I am so grateful whenever anyone takes the time to recommend trans male media for inclusion on this site. If you can recommend any films, shows, documentaries, or interviews, please let me know here!
Adrian, in addition to the recommendation of Vera, let me know that this film is inspired by the real-life Brazilian trans male poet Anderson Bigode Herzer, who died of suicide at the age of twenty, in 1982. As I watched Vera, and as I researched Herzer, I became incredibly frustrated. I am irritated, and actually quite angry, about the fact that I had never previously heard of this film, nor of Herzer himself.
Before I started building this site, I had been told so many times that the first trans male movie was Boys Don’t Cry, a USA-made movie released thirteen years after Vera. I had read so many articles/posts which claimed to recommend all great and history-making trans films that ought to be watched, but which were comprised solely of trans female films and one single trans male film… Boys Don’t Cry.
The history of trans male depictions onscreen is so much broader and more diverse than many commentators would have you believe, which I hope becomes apparent as people browse this site. The exclusion of Vera from retellings of trans media history is incredibly problematic, and is emblematic of the wider erasure of trans male representation.
Nowadays trans men are more often included but, as the documentary Disclosure (2020) proved, we still have a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity of trans male and transmasculine media depictions. My hope is that, eventually, my frustrations about FTM erasure and invisibility will become irrelevant as things change for the better.
All that being said, onto my review of Vera (1986)...
Bauer remains firm in his gender identity and name throughout the movie.
The trans male protagonist of this film initially does not speak, until a woman addresses him using the name Vera, at which point he firmly says, "My name is Bauer". Throughout the film he introduces himself using this name, and is usually addressed as such by colleagues and by his guardian. When he is later reminded of his legal name, by a different woman, he again asserts his true identity; "I am what I am. And my name is not Vera! My name is Bauer! I'm not a woman! I'm a man! Can't you see!"
A seemingly contradictory choice...
The title of this film is at odds with its own sensitively-depicted trans male protagonist, which is a contradiction attributable to the time the movie was made. As Bauer never medically transitions in the film (although he states that he will in the future), the title being his birth name is congruent with era-typical logic that a person ought to be addressed by their birth pronouns and name until they are able to undergo medical affirmation, at which point they will "become" a new gender. An example of this can be seen here, where gay activist Eldon Murray fondly remembers Lou Sullivan as being a "most cherished" friend, yet describes Lou's pre-surgery days using his birth name and she/her pronouns... and that eulogy was published in 2007. So, it makes complete sense to me that a film released in 1986 would title itself using similar logic. It matters far more to me that Bauer is addressed by his chosen name for the majority of the film, and the characters' interactions feel quite authentic to how a trans man might navigate the world in Bauer's situation.
The beginning of the film establishes Bauer as a polite, quiet, fearful young man who spent most of his childhood in a state institution for minors. At that institution, many young women faced physical abuse, solitary confinement, sexual harassment, and implied sexual abuse at the hands of the exclusively male, adult staff. He himself was placed in solitary confinement at least once and is verbally harassed alongside the other youths (due to the fact that they all refuse to wear dresses or skirts), but otherwise faces no instances of actual assault or violence.
Big Daddy and Bauer.
In the institution, he is initially bullied by a young woman nicknamed Big Daddy, who assumes a male familial role over her peers (being referred to as "grandpa" and "father") and takes responsibility for protecting the girls. However, once Bauer is initiated, he gains respect and asserts his masculinity alongside Big Daddy. In fact, once Big Daddy comes of age and therefore has to leave the institution, she asks Bauer to take her place as the girls' protector and leader.
A masculine youth at the institute.
I really enjoyed the film's explorations of gender roles and non-conformity in adolescence. Bauer aside, this movie has strong lesbian, butch, and tomboy themes, especially a scene where the institution youths express strong discomfort at being forced to wear dresses and shave their underarms. I find Big Daddy to be a really compelling character and I wish she could've gotten more scenes, and had her identity fleshed out.
The head of the institute speaking to teenage Bauer.
Bauer himself is shown presenting masculinely throughout his youth, and developing romantic/sexual feelings for a feminine girl named Telma. His generosity and empathy is shown early in the film, when he places himself at risk of punishment to help her as she endures her own punishment. The former part of the film is dedicated to establishing Bauer as largely timid, if occasionally passionate and unruly.
Bauer, newly an adult, with Paulo.
Once he comes of age, a wealthy and established man (Professor Paulo) elects to become responsible for him, finding him accomodation and employment. Paulo is generous and intelligent, and addresses Bauer by his chosen name when speaking to him. I really loved that dynamic.
Bauer's plans for the future.
However, Paulo's open-mindedness can only stretch so far; when Bauer wears a men's suit to work and consequently loses his job, Paulo chides him for provoking such a reaction with irresponsible dress. This results in the following dialogue:
BAUER: You know… Someday, when I save enough money, I’ll have surgery and solve this problem once and for all.
PAULO: I don’t follow.
BAUER: I’ll fix my gender, professor! I’ll become a real man!
PAULO: I don’t believe that surgery is possible.
BAUER: It is possible. It has to be. It’s possible in America! I’m not what everyone thinks I am. You hear me? I’m different. I’m something else! Something else!
Ana Beatriz Nogueira, the actress who played Bauer, did a remarkable job in this role. You can really feel Bauer's frustration, devastation, and dysphoria as he desperately tries to communicate that he is a man and he needs people to affirm him. (This being several decades before a robust discussion about the casting of actresses as trans men, I'm unbothered by Nogueira being chosen to play Bauer.)
Bauer's male identity being invalidated.
Bauer tries asserting his maleness in an inoffensive and calm manner but, when this doesn't work, he follows the example set by abusive institute wardens during his formative youth. In the latter part of the film he becomes arrogant, cocky, and (in two scenes) actually quite misogynistic. The trans male protagonist of this film compensates for his own powerlessness with machismo, but this does not last very long, and is supposed to seem like a shallow and unimpressive effort.
It's always clear that the issue is not Bauer's trans identity itself; the real issue is the behaviours he falls back on in order to make people take him seriously as a man. I like that balance, and the fact that Bauer is a flawed character but not an indictment on those who experience gender incongruence. Rather, he feels very young and naive, his view of masculinity shaped by abuse, early experiences of sexism, and warped gender roles demonstrated to him in the institution.
I am very impressed, actually, by the way Nogueira played a character with contradictory and warring sides to his personality. I can definitely see why Nogueira received an award for this performance, as it is very convincing and understandable. As a viewer, I understood why Bauer felt machismo and overcompensation was the only way he could survive. I disliked the character, in certain scenes, only to later find myself emotionally moved by the plight of this vulnerable young person who faced immense devastation. This is a really good movie in that respect.
Clara reading Bauer's poetry.
Bauer woos a woman named Clara, first with his gentleness and poetry, and later by treating her son kindly and passing as a man to her parents. However, their relationship is immediately impacted by his dysphoria and boundaries, neither of which Clara respects. She becomes angry that Bauer refuses to undress, and wants Bauer to admit that he is a woman attracted to women, as she herself ends up identifying.
Bauer and Clara.
The hardest part to watch, in my opinion, is a scene where Clara forces Bauer to reveal his pre-op chest. Though he pleads "no" in a distressed manner, she insists that she "won't accept" any intimacy or relationship unless he consents to being naked. Once he has taken off his singlet, she unwraps bandages from his chest and starts to touch him, causing Bauer to leap up from the bed and hurriedly dress himself. He tearfully says, "I'm sorry," before running out of the room.
Bauer fleeing sexual coercion.
At that point in the film, I became convinced that I was about to witness something quite horrific. Being aware that Herzer committed suicide at the age of twenty, I expected that this film would also end with the trans male protagonist taking his own life. But, while Herzer and Bauer's stories absolutely share similarities, I am glad to spoil the ending of the film by saying that Vera's fictional trans man has a far less tragic ending than what Herzer was driven to.
Bauer's final scene.
The movie ends with Bauer returning to the now-dilapidated institute, and sitting against a wall as he cries. It's a sad ending, sure, but Bauer is not dead. Given that I went in with that expectation, the ending feels almost hopeful. Most of us who have transitioned have found ourselves similarly distressed and isolated, and plenty of us survive to have the surgeries we need to alleviate our dysphoria. The fact that the filmmakers kept Bauer alive, rather than sealing his fate with an act of self-inflicted injury, means that he might have picked himself up after the conclusion of the movie, which is what I choose to believe.
All in all, I really liked this film, especially considering it was made in the 80s! The title really does a disservice to the actual content of the movie itself, and the trans male protagonist's characterisation. In terms of general warnings, you should prepare for the following:
Bauer holding up bloodied hands after discovering that he is menstruating.
A grown man punching a teenage girl in the face, at the institution. This moment is brief, and the action itself looks very pretend, but proceed with caution nonetheless if that might upset you.
After a teenage Bauer discovers that Telma (also a teenager) is flirting with an adult male staff member, he follows the example which has been set by his peers; he yells at her and intimidates her, threatening to confront the orderly unless she stops sneaking out to meet him. This is ultimately done to protect her, within the logic of the institutionalised community, but it is still quite an intense scene to watch, and it symbolises the beginning of Bauer's machismo.
One instance of a homophobic slur.
The head of the institution mocking the youths' masculinity, as Bauer and the girls refuse to wear dresses/skirts instead of trousers. He degrades them and tells them that, if they think they are "tough boys", they should undress and prove it by showing their "cocks". This is a very difficult scene to watch. Later, a gender non-conforming youth is made to walk in front of everyone else, wearing a skirt.
Regarding the last point though, I actually really enjoyed the fact that Bauer was not the sole focus of the institution's strict enforcement of gender roles and femininity. Sure, Bauer speaks up and expresses discomfort at being forced to dress in a way that causes him dysphoria, but the discomfort and distress of other youths is considered equally (if not more) important, which I appreciated. He is not the only one with boundaries and preferences. He is surrounded by girls who find empowerment and freedom in the wearing of shorts and trousers. The viewer is encouraged to wonder whether any of the other youths are gender-diverse, whether they are tomboys, whether they are lesbians (some irrefutably are), and/or whether they are simply young women dressing in a way that frees them from sexist expectations. I like the fact that there is diversity of preference, style, identity, and manner beyond Bauer, and that this diversity is allowed to exist without labels.