When first introduced to 20 Centimeters, I was understandably skeptical. A musical about a narcoleptic transgender woman with a 20-centimeter penis sounds like the kind of film that would simply revel in the grotesque, obscene, inaccurate, and offensive. But though it does feature many musical numbers, and there are certainly humorous elements to the plot, this is not the kind of jovial, exaggerated display of stereotypes and misguided attempts at political progressivism that it would seem at first glance. This film is a surprisingly realistic (to a certain degree), compassionate portrayal of the life of a preoperative transgender prostitute in Spain.
Sure, there are artistic embellishments. The lead character, Marieta, lives with a little person named Tomás, who is constantly looking for his next moneymaking scheme. Marieta works as a prostitute, though she longs to have a normal job “like a regular woman.” On top of being a preoperative transgender woman, Marieta suffers from narcolepsy, frequently falling asleep at random times, which affords her clients the opportunity to take advantage of her while she is asleep. Eventually, with the assistance of a temp agency, she is able to land a job as a night janitor at a mall, but since her ID still shows her as a male named Adolfo, she has to wear a man’s uniform and pretend to be male in front of her coworkers. While shopping for groceries at her local market, Marieta becomes infatuated with a man named Raúl. They begin a passionate affair, but Marieta quickly realizes that Raúl is primarily interested in her penis, and enjoys being the submissive partner when they have sex. Since it has always been Marieta’s lifelong dream to have sex reassignment surgery, she concludes that it will never work with Raúl, and decides to dump him.
The intimate depiction of life as a transgender woman is frequently interrupted with somewhat jarring musical numbers. Though the musical sequences are used to present some of Marieta’s inner-dialogue and feelings, functioning like dream sequences as she struggles with financial problems, relationships, and her gender and sexual identity, they are different both visually and tonally. The bright colors and exaggerated costumes are reminiscent of Bollywood’s large-scale dance numbers, while the “normal” scenes use muted colors and cramped, almost claustrophobic locales. The two disparate elements of the film don’t feel very naturally when juxtaposed with one another, but the musical sequences work to brighten an otherwise depressing tone.
One aspect of the film that really shines is Marieta’s characterization. It is usually very obvious when a filmmaker who knows very little about the transgender experience tries to make a film about it (see: The Crying Game, 1992), but this is one of the few films that seems to understand the struggles that transgender people face on a daily basis. Difficulties finding and keeping steady jobs (outside of the sex industry), archaic laws and stringent rules regarding identification, violence, difficulty with access to adequate healthcare and hormones, “tranny chasers,” and the list goes on. Despite being a musical that ostensibly takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the transgender experience, 20 Centimeters is a surprisingly thoughtful and beautiful representation of a woman who simply wants to find love and happiness in a world that cares very little for her troubles.
20 Centimeters is also refreshing, though not perfect, in its casting. Even today, it is an unfortunate habit of filmmakers to fill the roles of transgender women with male actors: The Crying Game (1992), Ma Vie en Rose (1997), A Soap (2006), The Danish Girl (2015), and so on. But director Ramón Salazar cast Mónica Cervera in the lead role, and Rossy de Palma as her post-operative transgender friend and fellow prostitute. A few transgender women appear in very minor roles, though ideally actual transgender actresses would play all of the transgender parts. Nonetheless, Salazar at least had the foresight and artistic integrity to cast women to portray women.
In short, 20 Centimeters is a superb and entertaining portrayal of the transgender experience and should not be missed.
Rating: ★★★★½ out of 5