João Pedro Rodrigues’ films are portraits of misfits. In O Fantasma (Phantom, 2000), it’s a young garbage collector who lives in a tiny flat and cannot deal with his sexual obsessions. Odete (Two Drifters, 2005) is a strange love triangle story, in which one person is dead, and the other two feel hopeless and act desperate. Morrer como um homem (To Die Like a Man, 2009) follows a transsexual struggling with identity, age, a toxic relationship, and the son’s hate. In A Última vez que vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macao, co-directed by João Rui Guerra da Mata, 2012), there is a local cabaret singer in trouble with the underworld who has no-one to ask for help but an old friend she has not seen for 30 years. And, finally, O Ornitólogo (The Ornithologist, 2016) introduces a story of a loner who gets lost in the forest and seems to be reluctant to return to his former life. Themes of identity, personal crisis, sexuality, and faith in the form of melodramas, neo-noir para-documentary or adventure film.
In September 2019, we invited Rodrigues to present his five feature films (beside these, he made a dozen short and mid-length films) at IFF Cinematik in Piestany, Slovakia. We spoke about his interest in mythologies, fine art, bodies, landscapes, genres, but also Hollywood films.
I would like to start with your most recent feature film, The Ornithologist. Why did you choose the character of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon, for your story and made him an ornithologist in today’s world?
Before becoming a saint, Anthony was a man by the name of Fernando. As a Franciscan, he had a close relationship with poor people and nature – Franciscans were sort of the first ecologists. In the film, I wanted to show solely unspoilt nature and a character that leaves everything behind. He encounters a couple of people, but you never see a landscape transformed by men – only at the end you see the ruins of a house.
I used a lot of stories that are told to be stories of Saint Anthony and transformed them into the story of my character. It is known that Fernando was born in Lisbon, changed his name to Anthony when he became a priest and went to North Africa to preach. He had to escape on a boat and after a storm somehow reached Italy, where he spent the rest of his life. All this is present in my story, but at the same time it is not important to know Saint Anthony to understand the film.
There is an interesting duality in the film which starts almost like a wild-life documentary with a scientist as the main character and then turns into a sort of mystic story. Are you interested in the connection or clash of these two rather different worlds?
I like the idea that you can slowly dive from reality into fantasy. The life of Saint Anthony is full of adventures and miracles and I was trying to use this rich mythology to create a story that goes slowly from nearly a documentary towards something that is totally unreal.
It has to do with my country’s mythology, which is not necessarily exclusively Catholic. First of all, we don’t know if Saint Anthony really existed, it is a mythological figure. But, in the film, there are also people dressed as sort of beasts, which is an old, pre-Christian tradition that still exists in Northern Portugal. In this ritual, young kids go wild in the forest; they are allowed to do whatever they want. Basically, it’s all about getting closer to nature.
At a younger age, you wanted to become an ornithologist and even started to study science. Can you tell me more about rationality in your filmmaking process? Because it seems to me that your films are more sensual than, let’s say, cerebral.
The fact that I studied biology is important to me, because I like precision very much. I also try to film in a way that is objective. Even if the film is fiction, what’s in front of the camera is not fantasy. I film bodies, I film physicality. I always begin with physicality, because I strongly believe in actors as human beings. There is some kind of reality that comes out of their bodies. The question of how to film an actor is basically the question of how to film a body.
Fiction, in a way, transcends this physicality of bodies to reach another realm and it can go many different ways that are less rational, perhaps. All I can do, then, is to try to make it credible – to try to make the unbelievable believable. Even if some of my film stories are a bit strange or crazy.
Yes, bodies are very much present in your films. Can you tell me more why the body interests you?
When I started to make my first film, Phantom, I was obsessed with the idea that films tend to avoid portraying bodies, especially in sexual relations. However, the naked body is one of the classic subjects of paintings; and even in prehistoric times, we can see Venuses, sculptures of naked women. So why have we been avoiding it for so long? There is a strong social censorship and codes; and I was trying to go against that. To film a naked body is the same as to film a face or a hand. I wanted to show that there is no hierarchy.
There is uniqueness in each actor and each body, and I always have the feeling that if I do not find the right actor or actress, it would not be possible to make the film. Usually, when I write, I am already looking for actors and places. For me, there is no hierarchy among stories, actors, and places. They are all equal materials from which I construct the film.
Regarding the idea of the hierarchy of body parts you just mentioned, it seems like you and the co-director João Rui Guerra da Mata applied it in The Last Time I Saw Macao, where we never see the main characters’ faces, only their body parts.
There is also a pragmatic reason for that. It was a film with a very small budget, and we had no money to pay the actors. That’s why we were doing all the parts ourselves. It was perhaps more important for us to film the city. The city of Macao is the body – physicality comes from the place.
However, there is one image that was essential for us. In the film, you can see a man walking towards the camera and the moment he walks out of the frame, there is a dog. When we saw it, we were like: Oh, people are turning into animals!
The sense of place seems to be important not only in The Last Time I Saw Macao, but also in Phantom and The Ornithologist. How do you approach filming the environment?
Just as with the body, I am obsessed with the physicality of places. When I am filming, I want you to feel that physicality. There is also the idea of not revealing everything from the beginning. You show the parts of a body or a city and the film slowly constructs complex images from these pieces. I think that this is Robert Bresson’s influence – he showed the whole picture by showing just details. It’s the economy of storytelling.
For example, I see The Ornithologist as an adventure film or a western. What I like about westerns is the monumentality of landscapes – landscapes are as important as characters.
It’s interesting to think about The Ornithologist as a western. But in your previous films, you play with and mix genres, too. I feel that genres are not the first thing that comes to mind when we say João Pedro Rodrigues’ film, yet all your films are basically genre films.
It is a question of language; and just like with language, you can use genres and play with them. I always try to find my own language using the tools that already exist. It’s like when you’re a painter – there are some rules and you can follow them or sabotage them. It’s about playfulness. When I watch a film, it must be a pleasurable experience for me. I try to make my films pleasurable to others.
I am very interested in comedy, for example, and I tried to approach it in To Die Like a Man in one scene, but it’s very difficult to make an intelligent comedy. Over-the-top grotesque is what scares me the most in cinema. I am attracted to it and constantly ask myself the question of how far you can go without falling into something that is totally ridiculous.
Two Drifters and To Die Like a Man are melodramas which are sometimes exactly over-the-top. I remember one moment in Two Drifters where the main character throws herself on a grave. Why do you include a scene like this in the film?
I feel that filmmakers often don’t take risks. If everyone is well-behaved, meeting other people ceases to be interesting. What is the point of meeting just well-behaved people and well-behaved films? It’s similar to academic painting – it’s well painted, but there is no sparkle. I prefer something rougher and not perfect. I don’t aim for perfection; even great films have their flaws. Maybe, sometimes, I slightly cross the line, but I feel that I have to try.
When I was re-watching your films, I realized that in the beginning of both, Phantom and To Die Like a Man, there is a sexual act and the first thing we see in Two Drifters is a very passionate, 30-second kiss. It seems like some kind of statement.
The point is to set the film into a certain place where you immediately understand that you came to see a film that may not be like the other ones. I also strongly believe in the beginnings; for me, they are super important. It’s a bit like a B-movie where the beginning often draws you straight into the film, because the filmmakers knew it has to be attractive from the very first moment. They did not have big budgets and had to be precise. I am bored, when the film starts and nothing happens, if it is overly explanatory. I want to be attracted to something that is happening.
It’s interesting that you reference much of Hollywood cinema.
When I started to watch films, the classic American ones were the most important to me – only later I discovered Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Tsai Ming-liang and others. I like the idea that cinema is a popular medium. That’s why I don’t agree, if someone says I make arthouse films that are not for everybody. My aim is to make films that would be shown in multiplexes. Of course, I exaggerate, but I am not making my films for specific audience. I try to be honest with myself and I am very curious to see other films. And I hope to find this curiosity in people who watch my films.
In The Ornithologist, there is a lot of religious imagery, but I’d like to point out a scene in which the main character is tied to a tree. The image has the physicality of the body as you were describing it, it reminds of the paintings of Saint Sebastian, so it has religious symbolism, and it’s also kind of sexual. Are you interested in this relation between religious and profane?
It has to do with playfulness. I use the iconography that comes from Saint Sebastian, but also from bondage. A lot of Christian iconography is closely related to sexual ecstasy. I also made a short film called Manhã de Santo António (The Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, 2012). We have a holiday on the date of Saint Anthony’s death, a religious holiday which is, at the same time, very pagan, because people go out and drink a lot. I like this contradiction, when you have something religious – like the anniversary of the death of a saint – but at the same time you do whatever.
I am not a believer, although Portugal has a Catholic tradition, but I think I learned how to tell stories not only by watching films, but also by looking at paintings. In Renaissance, a painting could tell the whole story of a person. Similarly, in cinema, you have to find the right images to put together the story you want to tell and it’s a limited number of images. I like this idea that an image can tell a lot.
In To Die Like a Man, we can see a transsexual character who is not able to undergo a sex-change operation because of the feeling of guilt towards God. Are you interested in the role of religion in Portuguese society?
The tragedy of this character is that she wants to change, she wants to have a sex-change operation, but she cannot do it because she believes that she was born with male genitals, and therefore has to die dressed as a man portraying what was supposed to be her role in society.
While preparing this film, I spoke to a lot of people to get to know their stories. Especially people of her age, who were around 50 years old, often had this conflict between faith and freedom, between how they were raised and what they wanted to be. I was very moved by some of those stories and they helped me to construct the film. We can see how oppressive religion can be and how the character overcomes this idea, even if it means surrendering to the biological truthfulness. On the other hand, you understand that at the end she is free and at her own funeral she is dressed as a woman she always wanted to be. There is a kind of liberating transcendence – she becomes a sort of Madonna of transsexuals in the end. She is dressed in classical colours, like the Virgin Mary portrayed in paintings.
Basically, all your characters go through some kind of life-changing transformation. And not only that, they are all pretty lonely and it seems their lives are falling apart.
I think there is a connection with myself – not that I feel myself falling apart, but I relate very much to the loneliness and to the idea that you need to go through a process of change to reach something. It’s a classic idea of a hero who needs to undergo a transformation throughout the story of the film. At the beginning, he is one person; at the end, he reaches another level of – sometimes even – consciousness. But even though people talk about this aspect of my films, I was not doing it consciously. Somehow the stories of my characters always went this way. So, in The Ornithologist, I tried to do it more radically, when I replaced the actor with someone else – me. It also connects with the story that I myself wanted to be an ornithologist, so at the end it’s not a character anymore, it’s me.
How personal are your other films?
I think that nowadays it’s impossible to make films without being personal. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the films are autobiographical. And they are not even cathartic to my own problems. It has to do with the way how I look at the world at the time I make these films. If I made my first film now, it wouldn’t be the same film.
In every film, I try to do something that is totally different from the previous ones. And each film I make, I try to forget. I just want to make a new one; I don’t want to stay in the past. I look in front of me and not behind. When I start working on a new film, a big part of work is forgetting the older one. This is the way I need to move ahead.