Portuguese helmer João Pedro Rodrigues returned to Cannes this year with his new film “Will-O’-the-Wisp” (“Fogo Fátuo”), which screened in Directors’ Fortnight and is his first feature since the well-received 2016 madcap journey of self-discovery, “The Ornithologist.”
The film begins in 2069, with Prince Alfredo on his deathbed, who begins to reminisce about his childhood spent in the King’s Pine Grove in Leiria, near Lisbon, which was devastated in the 2017 forest fires. Behind him we see Jose Conrado Roza’s enigmatic 18th century painting “The Wedding Masquerade,” featuring exotic, dwarfish figures with black skin and a character suffering from a skin disease, at a wedding ceremony.
After the forest fire the young Alfredo decides to join the volunteer fire brigade where he falls in love with a Black fireman, Afonso.
Rodrigues calls the film a “musical fantasy.” The homoerotically charged film establishes metaphorical links between the tall erect pine trees and the male member, including a love scene between Alfredo and Afonso in the ashes of the burnt forest.
The film can never be accused of being predictable. Its soundtrack includes multiple styles including a Fado piece, “Embuçado,” that was originally sung by the fado singer João Ferreira Rosa, and children’s songs such as Carlos Paiao 1980s hit “Uma Arvore, Um Amigo” (“A Tree, a Friend”). In the middle of the film there’s a choreographed dance sequence by male and female firefighters.
The pic was produced by Joao Matos, Vincent Wang, Joao Pedro Rodrigues for Terratreme Filmes, House On Fire and Filmes Fantasma. International sales are repped by Films Boutique. Rodrigues spoke to Variety during the Cannes Festival.
What attracted you to the musical genre for this film?
Every film is a new adventure. I always try to do something very different and I’ve always been interested in the liberating possibilities that we can gain from exploring traditional genres. This dates back to my training in the Lisbon Film School, when I was constantly watching films. The codes of classic cinema are tools that we can work with. When thinking about this project, I had always wanted to make a comedy, which is one of the most difficult genres to work in. What I like the most is comedies from the silent era, such as Chaplin and Keaton, and also later works, such as the films of Lubitsch and Jerry Lewis. In the ending of my 2009 film “To Die Like a Man,” I introduced a comic tone. I wanted to make a film with serious lightness. A melancholic comedy, a comedy laced with tragedy.
The painting by Conrado Roza is a recurrent presence in the film.
It’s an 18th century Portuguese painting. I only discovered it after I had finished the script. In the first draft there was a painting by Paula Rego. The dwarfish figures with black skin depicted in the painting were part of the entourage of the Portuguese Queen Maria I. She collected exotic figures around her. This construction of opposites attracted me for this film.
The film has an extremely eclectic choice of music.
The music was chosen while we were writing the script. It allows us to travel through time. For example when we see the actor Joel Branco singing softly on his death bed. I wanted to include songs which are re-contextualised in the film and given a new meaning. I chose to include Mozart’s “Magic Flute” because Conrado Roza’s painting shows a flute player. The song by Carlos Paião has great topical relevance because of the ecological and climate crises. The fado song at the end of the film, which is sung by Paulo Bragança, has clear royalist undertones. In the film it takes on a different meaning. Paulo also appeared at the end of “To Die Like a Man.” He is a visionary who revolutionized fado in the 1980s. I think it’s very important to bring people who many have already forgotten and show their modern relevance.
What interested you in this hypothetical royal family?
I wanted to explore the irony that Portugal no longer has a monarchy but through the celebrity magazines it’s as if we still wanted to have one. It’s similar in Spain where although they still have a monarchy, it’s become part of the world of celebrities. I wanted to show an aristocratic family that no longer exists. A life beyond our normal existence. Where the characters create their own mise-en-scene and are aware that people are constantly watching them, like the people whose lives are constantly shown in celebrity magazines. That’s why I show them staring at the camera at times and closing the doors, so that we can no longer see them. I wanted to show Alfredo leaving this world of illusions and join the fire brigade, where his life changes. There is a historic link between royalty, aristocracy and firefighters and I wanted to explore that.
Why did you begin the film in 2069?
It brings an almost sci-fi dimension. Obviously the choice of that date is a reference to Gainsbourg’s song, “69 année érotique.” By beginning the film in the future, almost everything is possible. For example, we learn that in 2069 Portugal has a black Muslim president. I also wanted to end the film in the brutalist church, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Lisbon, which was built in the 1960s and designed by Nuno Teotónio Pereira and Nuno Portas. It combines tradition with modernity. The church has wooden curtains, that I use in other parts of the film. These architects were also visionaries. It was conceived in the past, but looks like the future. I really like this side of brutalist architecture and screens that open and close.
The film explores an almost alchemical evolution, with parallels to the chess game, between black and white.
The film involves a huge dose of sarcasm, such as the ironic representation of the male sex. When we see the young prince in 2011 he gets an erection when his father talks about the trees. The sex scene between Alfredo and Afonso is set in the ashes. Everything has to burn to bring new life. I wrote the script after the 2017 forest fires which was a traumatic moment. The pine forest in Leiria was planted in the 13thcentury and its timber was used to build the Portuguese ships that made the discoveries.
What is your next project?
I already have another film completed, “Where Is This Street?· or With No Before and After” co-directed with João Rui Guerra da Mata, who is also the screenwriter and production designer-art director on “Fogo Fátuo”. It’s a revisiting of Paulo Rocha’s 1963 film “Os Verdes Anos” and stars Isabel Ruth who was in the original film. I inherited a house from my grandparents and from the window we see a decor that appeared in this film. I also studied under Paulo Rocha at film school. It’s more or less a documentary, in which I revisit the places and show how they have changed, with an improvised soundtrack based on the original score. We began filming in 2019, but the main scenes were shot during the pandemic, and also show how Lisbon was affected during this period. It’s almost as if the film was infected by the pandemic. It will premiere later this year.