Exploring the fantastical overlaps between human desire, sexual identity and bizarre metamorphoses, provocative Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues has become one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary cinema.
“The filmmaker most likely to explode in the next ten years if the big pigs of the cinema don’t crush him. What Rodrigues describes with ardour and doubt, is simply the unfathomable mysteries of our sexuality. At once rhetorical, oneiric and concrete: a first-rate cinematic storyteller.”
Provocative Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues (b.1966) has unquestionably become one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary cinema. Although he is routinely weighed against a checklist of great filmmakers, from Fassbinder through Tsai Ming-liang, Rodrigues’ phantom- filled cinema is refreshingly, subversively his own. Displaying an assured cinematic (and cinephilic) voice, a playful penchant for perversion, exquisite compositional style and a profound curiosity about the ceaselessly complex nature of human desire and sexuality, Rodrigues’ three features—O Fantasma, Two Drifters
and To Die Like a Man
—form an unofficial trilogy on sexual identity and metamorphosis. His bande à part of wounded loners, drifters and dreamers are rendered as larger than life-size outlaws of desire, their drives and passions defying—and sometimes fantastically transcending— the dictates of biology.
A biology student who trained as an ornithologist before turning to filmmaking (note the doctor’s origami-like demonstration of sex re-alignment in To Die Like a Man
), Rodrigues is fascinated by the idea of organic evolution as a force both within and beyond our control. His array of arresting characters—O Fantasma
’s gorgeous, libidinal garbage man, who collects more than just rubbish on his nocturnal rounds; the statuesque, roller-skating supermarket clerk of Two Drifters
who thinks she’s carrying a dead gay man’s baby; and To Die Like a Man
’s aging, ailing Mamma Roma-type transvestite, so deeply religious that she cannot commit to a sex-change operation— undergo a series of morphings and mutations (self-willed or otherwise) that daringly blur the line between gender and personal identity, human and animal, and life and death. Yet Rodrigues treats these uncanny existential scenarios with the outsized flourishes of baroque melodrama, creating a tone of deeply felt but vaguely droll anguish that recalls both Fassbinder and the recent films of Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget
Featuring unsimulated sex and latent surrealism in its bold depiction of unquenchable desire, Rodrigues’ debut O Fantasma
set tongues wagging at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. A phosphorescent creature of the night in his reflective uniform, the film’s hero Sergio is a petulant, pouty and perpetually aroused slut obsessed with an uninterested, sandy-haired hunk, whose rejection effectively sets the trash humper on a startling transformation. Growing ever more austere and bizarre as its protagonist’s mental and material realities converge, O Fantasma
nods to Feuillade’s nocturnal serial Les Vampires
as it exhumes a dark, haunting beauty quite literally from the garbage heap, creating a transgressive queer art film that proved to be rather daunting fare for the average Gay & Lesbian film festival audience.
Rodrigues’ second feature Two Drifters
(originally titled Odete
at its Cannes premiere) approaches the euphoric melancholy and dreamy, fatalistic heartbreak of a Jacques Demy film undercut by a stylized, Sirkian artifice. Further pressing Rodrigues’ conception of a wraith-like representation of loss and longing, Two Drifters
is an unlikely love triangle between a dead gay man, his bereft lover and an eccentric, leggy supermarket clerk who convinces herself that’s she’s become impregnated by the deceased. An improbable resurrection lends succour to the characters’ woeful necrophilic fixations and provides the film with its much-talked about happy ending, a double entendre sexual innuendo made preternaturally real. While the film’s original title inevitably carries echoes of Dreyer, Ordet
’s miraculous conclusion is here altered beyond recognition, exchanging heart-stopping gravity for discomfiting humour and twisted tenderness.
In Rodrigues’ latest film, the critically acclaimed To Die Like a Man
(which played at the Festival in 2009), the title reveals a double-edged meaning: beginning like a war film, as a platoon of soldiers treks through hushed darkness and lush foliage, the film mysteriously morphs into a tragic tale about Tonia, an aging transsexual drag performer who has lived like a woman for years but, despite the urging of her self-destructive straight boyfriend, cannot commit to a sex-change operation for fear of betraying God. Ravaged by age and illness—her body is rejecting the various hormones and implants that have supplied her identity—Tonia decides to die as she was born. Structured like a Calvary, with dialogue seeped in the sad, sweetened sincerity of melodrama and with stilted pauses for a cappella song (including a sublime, crimson life-frieze appropriately scored to “Calvary” by Baby Dee, a transsexual American chanteuse), To Die Like a Man
renders spectacle in an oddly unspectacular way. Shooting in the constrained 1.33 aspect ratio, which lends his images an intimate claustrophobia evoking the expressive, constricted compositions of silent cinema, Rodrigues radically upends the transsexual drag genre, steering clear of plumed performances and catty catwalks, focusing instead upon the psychological distress of gender dysphoria.
Wry and perfectly poised between the silly and the serious (and sometimes shocking), Rodrigues’ “unholy three” (to quote the title of his Carte Blanche selection for this programme) reveals the filmmaker’s willingness to veer into dangerous territory by challenging not only moral and ethical boundaries, but those of taste. The films’ ritualistic push and pull between seduction and repulsion speaks to the unspeakable in matters of desire, but also to those of artistic creation, in which wild contradictions of style can be a risky affair. Rodrigues’ paradoxical vision, in which cruelty is ultimately confronted by hope, is made manifest by his feverish, uninhibited imagination. Even the depths of abjection offer a sideways slit for transcendence, best expressed by the dying Tonia’s incurable romanticism and her/his brave, dignified acceptance. In Rodrigues’ extreme studies of lust, longing and loneliness, death looms, but so does the everlasting. As a rival softly but matter-of-factly says to Tonia as she lies weakened on her deathbed: “We’re all here in passing. This is not the end.”—Andréa PicardTIFF Cinematheque is delighted to welcome João Pedro Rodrigues and his longtime collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata to Toronto to introduce their films as part of The New Auteurs.Thanks to Florence Almozini, Jake Perlin and Troy Dandro, BAMcinématek; Dennis Lim; João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata.