“VARIAÇÕES: GUARDIAN ANGEL”— A Solitary and Reserved Queer Portuguese Music Legend


A Solitary and Reserved Queer Portuguese Music Legend

Amos Lassen

I understand that the desire to represent António Variações on the big screen had been going on for almost 20 years for João Maia, director and screenwriter. With “Variações” this has finally happened.  Sérgio Praia, who plays the title character, was also part of this fight, being 10 years to play the part. The period of waiting for the opportunity to make the film may have given João Maia time to start realizing what he wanted to tell about António Ribeiro, born in 1944 in Amares.

The  film covers between 1977 and 1981, even before the musician managed to release the first of his only two albums. He died in 1984. The emphasis is placed on António’s struggle to show his music and go beyond what the industry sought to make of him.

Sérgio Praia’s performance is an inseparable factor of the film. Praia managed to give humanity to Variações and let go of a permanent eccentricity and let the singer’s greatness show in his music.

Variações was an artist whose work and legacy was so rooted in the Portuguese collective psyche that even the youngest who do not know who he is certainly heard it. Despite having died new and with only two albums recorded, António Variações is synonymous with Portuguese music at its best. His image was daring, shamelessly queer in a Portugal that clung to Catholic conservatism which came to define Portugal over time. The music he presented to the country was bold and new, a sound with one foot in traditional folklore and another in the future. Looking back, perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the figure of António Ribeiro made António Variações is how he was able to achieve such weight and such success. The film does not even try to explore this socio-cultural process and mystery. It leaves this entire period in the artist’s life outside the narrative.

This is not necessarily detrimental to the film. In journalistic articles and television profiles, we can find this out. The film explores the intimacy of its protagonist to those parts of its existence that are outside the official history and known by those who are already his fans. The problem is that this is also not a particularly incisive character study. In fact, this is a film more easily defined by what it is not than by what it actually manages to be. It is not a classic Hollywood story. Although we see the singer in childhood and in his last days, there is a clear lack of interest in seeing his most iconic years. It is also not the type of intimate portrait, more focused on the psychology of the person than on the image of the idol. It is too fragmented and chronologically chaotic and too superficial,. it is also not the type of story contained and united by a concrete theme. Sérgio Praia sings all the numbers in the film with his own voice but that doesn’t steal the songs from their glory.

Born into a large rural family,  Variações was expected to work in their woodworking shop, but he had other ideas right from early childhood..  Even though he couldn’t write a note of music he knew that he wanted to make that his life.  

He had a habit of recording his songs on a hand held tape recorderwhile in his bathroom.  When he finally gets a recording contract, he  insists that all he wants to record are his own compositions . The Company however refused and so he didn’t get to record anything for the next four years. 

Variações musical style is hard to define part neo-folk part rock part punk but also very queer.  He was a charismatic flamboyantly-dressed figure who made no effort to hide his sexuality.  When he was not performing on stage he worked as a fancy hairdresser’.  He was ‘discovered’ by a Portuguese music critic when he living in Amsterdam and it did take much persuading to return to Lisbon if he wanted to be a successful musician.

Returning him reunited him with hairdresser Fernando Ataíde (Filipe Duarte) who is  unsubtly hinted to be his lover. The whole film skirts around Variações’s very obvious queerness although very sadly his family still denies his homosexuality and the that fact the cause of his death was a complication from AIDS.  

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