The Portuguese filmmaker Joao Pedro Rodrigues he visited Spain on the occasion of the premiere of ‘Fuego Vatuo’, his latest and brief creation in which he departs considerably from the style of his previous film ‘The Ornithologist’, an equally crazy film, but with a more serious tone.
“I always try to make films that are different from each other; each film is a way to forget the previous one. I try to distance myself from what I do, although to seriously do film or art in general, it has to be personal. This is not to say that my films are autobiographical, but there is a lot of me, of every moment of my life in which I made them. It’s my way of looking at the world at that moment and my way of communicating with the people who see the movies,” says Rodrigues.
“I always wanted to do comedy”
This continuous search for different artistic expressions is clear from his debut feature film, ‘Ghost‘, in the year 2000. That film, premiered in the official section of the Venice Film Festival, followed a young garbage man who worked nights on the streets of Lisbon and had casual encounters with men.
The transgressive nature of his work was already in force here, with explicit sex scenes and a determined vocation to put the focus on people who live outside of social conventions (something present in all his films). In the case of ‘The Ghost’, the film starts as a realistic drama and ends in a dark fantasy game in which the protagonist finds himself trapped.
Referring to ‘Fuego Tuo’, but extrapolated to his entire career, the Lisbon filmmaker affirms that his way of working always starts from the real even though his narrations end up taking illusory paths: “My films may seem far from [del mundo]. There are people who say they are surreal, but I don’t believe it; for me the surreal is like a dream, a completely invented world. Me I like filming flesh and blood characters“.
Rodrigues’s next step did not come until 2005 with ‘odete‘, premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, an event in which he has presented a large part of his work. The film partly followed the nocturnal realism of ‘El fantasma’ but added an important melodramatic plot reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar.
Since then, the Portuguese director has often been compared to the man from La Mancha. Perhaps because they both make queer and dissident cinema, or because of their critical and affectionate portrayal of their respective countries. In ‘Odette’, the stories of a young man who has just lost his boyfriend and that of a girl who dreams of having a child are intertwined. It is one of his most accessible proposals and, probably, the most appropriate film to enter his universe.
Four years later, ‘die like a man‘ is his most determined foray into Almodovar grounds. Rodrigues tells the story of a transsexual who doubts whether or not to undergo a sex change operation, as this conflicts with her religious beliefs. Even though it is a drama, there are comic passages that will serve as the seeds of ‘Fuego Vatuo’, his first comedy as such.
“A Comedy is something I always wanted to do, but he felt that he was not ready yet. There is a movie called ‘Die a Man’ that I did in 2009, which has scenes that are close to comedy, but this was the time [para hacer una]”. Another main difference between the two is that ‘Fuego Tuo’ barely lasts 67 minutes, while ‘Die Like a Man’ reaches 133′. When asked about the brevity of his new creation, Rodrigues admits: “There are many very long movies”.
And he continues: “It’s a bit like the title of the film. The will-o’-the-wisp is something that is ephemeral, volatile… although I hope that something of the film remains after watching it [risas]. It is a physical phenomenon: an organic matter that decomposes and releases gases, and that at the same time was seen as something supernatural. I start from the real to reach the fantasticto the fictional”.
After various forays into the documentary (‘Arvorada Vermelha’, ‘The last time I saw Macao’) and several short films (‘Manha de Santo Antonio’) and medium-length films (‘Mahjong’), in 2016 comes ‘the ornithologist‘, which is so far his magnum opus and with which he won the award for best director at Locarno. What begins as a kind of nature documentary, turns into an absolutely insane and brilliant journey through the forests of Tras-os-Montes in which religion, Portuguese history and sexuality mix.
“We were very fed up with the pandemic. Filming Fuego Tuo it was a liberation”
This impossible combination of themes (another of the key points in his filmography), is also an essential part in ‘Fuego Vatuo’, a film that deals with the Portuguese colonial past, the monarchy, the climate crisis, homosexual desire and even COVID-19.
“The thing about the covid was not in the original script, which was written before. It should have been shot in 2020, and in the end it was at the end of 2021. It was important for me to integrate it into the film. I find it strange that movies made in that period ignore this fact. It’s like they’re in a bubble… People were dying, and locked up in their houses and it’s like nothing happened,” the filmmaker declares.
Regarding the rest of the issues, the filmmaker adds: “The fires in Portugal are something that happens every year. Colonialism… we have a gigantic colonial past, which was made by the kings of Portugal. We haven’t lived for 100 years.” in a monarchy, but we were in one for 700 years. The colonies are from that moment, when we left the world appropriating territories… This is the history of the world. I think we live in a moment in which there is a kind of denial. The fair way is to contextualize the Portuguese colonial past, not to invent that it did not exist“.
The most important scene in the film is an elaborate choreography where the two leads become aware of their mutual attraction. This is how Rodrigues remembers it: “It was a lot of fun. When we filmed at the end of 2021 we were already very fed up with the pandemic. Being able to shoot together and make a funny film where many people touch each other it was a liberation after two difficult years“.
Once again, Rodrigues once again influences his vision, which always starts from reality to later create from it: “We start from the choreography of the rescue gestures at the beginning to transfigure the choreography creating a dance from there. This I am very interested. I asked permission to film in a fire station and all the firefighters are real. Fictions are imaginary, but they always come from the real”.
Regarding the notorious theatricality of the film, where the characters sometimes break the fourth wall, the filmmaker defends that it represents “a bit of this idea that the royal family lives a fiction and is stagedis staged to underline that image that they are in the theater, acting to show themselves to others”.
After ‘Fuego Tuo’, it is to be expected that Rodrigues will seek a different direction than this. “It is important to do different things so as not to find a kind of stylenot finding a way that is comfortable for me when it comes to making films”, he affirms. At the moment, his new project already has Portuguese financing but he is still seeking international financial support.
At the end of the interview, Rodrigues gives us details of his next fiction: “It deals with the carnation revolution in the 70s when the Portuguese dictatorship ended. A group of homosexuals tried to claim their rights, but they were unsuccessful since homosexuality was not recognized at the time (it was only until the 80s ). Freedom is not always for everyone, there is a group of people who are always late. It will also be the story of a boy who discovers his sexuality during this changing moment in Portugal.”
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