João Pedro Rodrigues’s Will-o’-the-Wisp

João Pedro Rodrigues’s Will-o’-the-Wisp (2022)

On Saturday, Will-o’-the-Wisp, a “musical fantasia” and the sixth feature from João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist), will open Currents, the New York Film Festival’s program “with an emphasis on new and innovative forms and voices.” Rodrigues will take part in Q&As, and then, on Monday, he’ll join Ruth Beckermann—whose Mutzenbacher won this year’s Encounters Award in Berlin—as well as Elisabeth Subrin and Isabel Sandoval, the director and one of the stars of Maria Schneider, 1983, for a conversation under the heading Politics of Desire.

Will-o’-the-Wisp begins in 2069, a reference, Rodrigues tells Variety’s Martin Dale, to “69 année érotique,” the song Serge Gainsbourg wrote and sang with Jane Birkin. Portugal hasn’t had a monarchy since the founding of the First Republic in 1910, but in the future Rodrigues imagines, King Alfredo lies on his deathbed. His mind drifts back to his days as a young prince and volunteer firefighter (Mauro Costa) who falls in love with Afonso (André Cabral), “with whom his sexual chemistry will quickly approach supernova levels,” as Charles Bramesco puts it in Little White Lies. It’s an erotically charged fire department. In “one standout scene,” notes Bramesco, “jock-strapped and ass-naked firefighters razz their new recruit by acting out tableaux of classical artworks and quizzing him on the source of the homage.”

Screen’s Allan Hunter calls the sixty-seven-minute Will-o’-the-Wisp “a proudly idiosyncratic collage exploring climate change, Covid-19, global warming, and the existential state of a Portugal torn between dismay over its colonialist past and the hope for a more progressive future.” An admirer of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, and Jerry Lewis, Rodrigues tells Martin Dale that he “wanted to make a film with serious lightness. A melancholic comedy, a comedy laced with tragedy.”

As James Lattimer sees it, he got there. “Apart from the science-fiction stylings of the film’s framing device, which exude a droll, lo-fi charm of their own,” writes Lattimer in Cinema Scope, “the true innovation here is comedy, which works like a charm, dovetailing with Rodrigues’s trademark eroticism to amusingly ribald effect while also giving structure to his free-floating approach to narrative. And, like in all the best comedies, the reason the punchlines land is because they actually mean something.”

Rodrigues cowrote Will-o’-the-Wisp with Paulo Lopes Graça and João Rui Guerra da Mata, who is also the film’s production designer and art director. In 2012, Rodrigues and da Mata codirected The Last Time I Saw Macao, and since Will-o’-the-Wisp, they have collaborated again on Where Is This Street? Or With no Before or After, a documentary tribute to Paulo Rocha’s The Green Years (1963), a landmark of Portugal’s Novo Cinema (not to be confused with Brazil’s Cinema Novo). Where Is This Street? will screen next month at festivals in London and Tokyo.

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