Magnificent Obsession: The Films of João Pedro Rodrigues

Recently celebrated with a retrospective at the TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, Canada, Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues is undeniably one of the most distinctive and innovative queer voices in cinema today.

In his youth Rodrigues wanted to be an ornithologist, but from the age of 15 ended up spending much of his time in the cinema. “My desire to make films came from watching films,” Rodrigues states, “and I learned to make films from watching films.” While he started studying biology, he made the move to film school as his passion grew, and his films exhibit these odd-couple origins: they have a certain clinical or analytical gaze married with a deep love of artifice and fantasy.

Rodrigues was particularly drawn to silent cinema – Erich von Stroheim, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin – and to the work of French postwar director Robert Bresson. “But,” Rodrigues cautions, “when I’m making a film I try to get rid of all my influences, because I don’t want to make films as this director or that director did, I try to find my own language.” Indeed Rodrigues’s films seem steeped in his devotion to cinema and its rich, century-old history, but rather than merely referencing the past, they build something utterly new from this foundation.

Fascinated by the extreme lengths that people will go to indulge their desires and pursue their obsessions, Rodrigues directed his first feature film, O Fantasma, in 2000. It follows Sergio, a brooding garbage man as he cruises the streets in the dead of night. Shot primarily in the dark, with only an ambient soundtrack, the film is suffused with a listless and violently narcissistic sexuality. Hunky Sergio is perpetually masturbating or fucking, but he is incapable of otherwise relating to people and remains trapped in a crippling solitude. He is virtually a beast, sniffing or licking furiously like some kind of nympho bloodhound. Increasingly frustrated by the un-conquerability of a man he encounters and then stalks throughout the film, Sergio dons a black, full-body rubber suit, transforming himself into an anonymous, post-human stain (or maybe a giant, shimmering black dildo). After kidnapping and brutalizing his prey, this creature flees to the edge of town, drinking from dirty puddles in a post-apocalyptic landfill straight out of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema or Porcile.

After this striking debut, Rodrigues became interested in “how to make a melodrama nowadays in Portugal with things that I’m connected to.” Drawing on Hollywood directors from the 1950s like Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, as well as art filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who revisited the melodrama genre in 1970s Germany), he directed the equally daring and darkly Romantic Odete (AKA Two Drifters), 2005, about Odete, a woman haunted by her gay neighbour Pedro after he dies in a car accident. The film plays out as a post-mortem love triangle of sorts: through their shared love for the song “Moon River” and their languorous kiss that opens the film, Pedro is eternally bound to his boyfriend Rui, so it is only natural that Pedro would find himself reincarnated – in Odete’s body.

Luscious and leggy supermarket price-check girl Odete is fascinated by pregnancy, and, without explanation, she becomes obsessed with Pedro after discovering his passing. Soon she imagines that she is pregnant with his child, causing great consternation among Pedro’s family and the tormented Rui. The film indulges many of melodrama’s most distinctive tropes, from dramatic gusts of wind (no doubt inherited from Sirk) to saturated colours and conspicuous Fassbinderian zooms. Similarly, there is a glorious moment early on where Rui’s tears over Pedro’s blood-spewing, crumpled body provoke a thundering downpour. While Odete is often as feral as O Fantasma’s Sergio, the prevailing affect here is emotional hysteria rather than the earlier film’s base physicality: Odete throws herself kicking and screaming on Pedro’s casket – she eventually takes to sleeping on his grave – and Rui attempts suicide via both pills and wrist-slashing.

Rodrigues claims that the film seeks to explore, “what do you do when you lose someone you love?” The film seems to convulse with Odete and Rui’s excessive, perverse grief, thereby ushering in the woman’s startling rebirth: when Odete realizes that she is not pregnant with Pedro’s baby (it was all in her head), she transforms herself body and soul into the dead man instead. Having sucked Pedro’s ring off his finger at his funeral service, Odete puts it on, and the jewellery holds a talismanic power over Rui, almost as if the ring camouflages her as Pedro in Rui’s eyes. Haunting the film throughout, Pedro appears as a ghost to witness the stunning finale – the consummation of Odete and Rui’s explosive relationship.

While Rodrigues’s first two features screened widely at international and queer festivals, it was his 2009 feature To Die Like a Man that cemented his reputation as a master stylist and bold observer of his fellow (wo)man. In a reverse of Odete’s FTM transition into Pedro, To Die Like a Man focuses on the waning years of one Antonio’s self-fashioning as Tonia. Weak and infirm, cursed by oozing, infected breast implants, the baritone-voiced Tonia decides it is time to go. After twenty years of being Tonia, she decides that she must go back and die as Antonio. The film constantly questions whether change of any kind is possible, or whether we are all just recycling or remixing our essential, unchanging selves.

An early scene scrutinizes a surgeon’s origami demonstration of how a penis is surgically transformed into a vagina: “everything is made into something else,” he proclaims. Wandering through a garden afterwards with her friend Irene, Tonia concludes that she doesn’t want to be put on the butcher’s block at this stage of her life – it seems like an indignity to her. All this gory genital talk is symbolized by a bouquet of “pornographic” red anthuriums that Tonia comes across at the end of her perambulation, which she refuses.

Tonia’s acceptance of her mortality only happens in the film’s third act, and much of To Die Like a Man follows a mesmerizingly meandering path through Tonia’s daily life with her scrawny junkie boyfriend Rosario and her devoted white dog Agustina (she also takes in a stray and names him Bum). Tonia also must confront her volatile son Zé Maria – a soldier who commits a homophobic murder in the first scene, sparked by his shame about his father’s difference – and her nemesis Jenny, a stunning “black witch” who is younger than her and eager to take her place as the star of the drag club they work at. (“You can take my wig but not my applause,” Tonia opines.) In one of the most startling lines, Tonia castigates the costume-making Rosario for ogling Jenny by snapping “haven’t you seen a naked man before?” It is so shocking because, to our eyes, Jenny stands there a glistening amazon, unquestionably a woman.

Tonia is pious, always praying for the self-destructive Rosario to return to her – even as he mistreats and robs her (and abuses her poor, loyal Agustina), he desperately clings to the maternal Tonia, and their relationship is heartbreaking. Our first introduction to Rosario finds him limply brandishing a switchblade, strung out in the gutter – on his birthday no less. Tonia, in full red sequined glamour drag, raises him up and walks with him through a churchyard. However, Rodrigues films them moving towards us, their legs not moving – as if they were tarnished angels (to borrow a Sirk title). Rosario serenades Tonia with a song, the first of many whispered, muttered, sung to oneself and otherwise unspectacularly or distractedly performed in this thoroughly original film.

In the most remarkable sequence, Tonia and Rosario wander off into the woods in search of Bum, and stumble across a Wildean scene featuring the elegant, witty Maria and her homely indentured servant, Paula. Heading out on an evening walk, the moon turns crimson and the motley crew rests, pausing as they listen to the entirety of the haunting song “Calvary” by Baby Dee.

I have now seen the film twice and each time I have found it to be an intensely emotional experience. Something about the tone of the film, its cavalier attitude toward tragedy, is greatly affecting, and I think its status as Rodrigues’s masterpiece is inarguable. The film astounds with its fancifully melancholic tableaux, its sorrowful songs (which Rodrigues terms “musical numbers”) and its complex emotional intelligence. It almost feels as if Rodrigues is inventing 21st-century cinema as he goes along. This gloriously sad anti-musical suggests that unconventional characters like Rodrigues’s demand a cinema that is similarly free of cliché.

Rodrigues’s first co-production (with France), To Die Like a Man is both epic and intimate, evoking great wonder despite being shot on grainy Super-16 with a claustrophobic, squarish frame. Rodrigues explains, “I wanted to make a film that was about these characters that are usually portrayed as flamboyant, but that was stylistically against that flamboyance and that spectacular quality of the characters, or at least what you think those characters are like… What I tried to get at was some kind of flamboyance but in an austere way, a musical that was constrained.”

Reveling in the often sharp disjunction between essence and performance, the film ultimately suggests that appearances are always only for others, and that confronting one’s true self requires a level of reckoning that can only take place alone. On her deathbed, Tonia is bathed, Christ-like, by Rosario in a poignant role reversal: the child has become the parent, the vulnerable strong. The two lovers will be buried side by side – both in suits.

With their passion and their intensity, Rodrigues’s characters have a certain mythic quality – almost as if they are aware of themselves as “movie characters” – but, vitally, they are based on near-scientific observation: “Every time I’m preparing a film, I always do a lot of research. For O Fantasma I spent six months at a garbage depot watching how people physically work, to know their routines in order to then construct my story. It was very important to have an anchor in reality because my films go into fantasy, perhaps, but always depart from the real, the palpable and physical.” The result is akin to a tragicomic fusion of dream and waking life.

Rodrigues’s wizardry with pathos-infused camp and high melodrama in this portrait of an aging queen is perhaps related to his own maturation, the wisdom that he, like Tonia, accrued over decades: “The first time I saw a Douglas Sirk film was on TV and I connected with the colours, and then I started to understand them a bit more. Twenty years ago I was younger and perhaps the films didn’t move me as much as they did afterwards.”

Rodrigues seems to me like the perfect example of an artist advancing a specifically queer sensibility and aesthetics that goes beyond the gender or sexuality of his characters to forge a specifically queer view of the world. But Rodrigues prefers to see what he does as being “honest” to himself: “I have to make films that are connected to the way I am and my sensibility… with what stories I want to tell in this period of my life, and tell the best way I can.” In terms of how they have been received, Rodrigues comments, “My films always divide a lot of people. There are people that like them a lot and people that hate them very strongly too. For me it’s always very mysterious why you like one film or you don’t. I tend to react strongly to films too, I go a lot to the cinema and I like films that don’t leave me indifferent, and I think that my films don’t leave people indifferent. There are people that understand them and people that refuse them, but that’s normal.”

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