TIFF Cinematheque continues it New Auteurs series with a retrospective of the dazzlingly strange work of Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues. Rodrigues is unquestionably one of the most distinctive and innovative queer voices in cinema today. With the director and his long-time creative partner (and boyfriend), João Rui Guerra da Mata, presenting all of the screenings in person, this is the perfect chance to encounter Rodrigues’s three features and two shorts for the first time.
In his youth, Rodrigues wanted to be an ornithologist, but from the age of 15 he spent much of his time in the cinema.
“My desire to make films came from watching films,” Rodrigues says, “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 — von Stroheim, Griffith, Chaplin — “but,” he 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 totally 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 to which people will go to achieve their desires and indulge their obsessions, Rodrigues directed his first feature, O Fantasma, in 2000. It follows a studly garbage man as he cruises the streets each night, eventually spiralling into the grips of amour fou when confronted with a sexually unavailable biker.
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 ’50s such as Sirk and Minnelli, as well as art filmmakers like Fassbinder (who revisited the melodrama genre in ’70s Germany), he directed the equally daring Two Drifters (aka Odete) in 2005, a post-mortem love triangle of sorts about Odete, a woman who believes she is carrying the baby of her dead gay neighbour, and the man’s surviving lover.
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 a bold observer of human nature.
Following Tonia, an aging non-op trans woman deliberating whether to confront death in the male sex of her birth, the film consistently 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. With Tonia accompanied by her gorgeous but abusive boyfriend and her troubled son, this gloriously sad anti-musical suggests that profoundly unconventional characters bent on self-metamorphosis demand a cinema that is just as fluid and free as they. 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.
“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,” says Rodrigues.
With their passion and their intensity, Rodrigues’s characters have a certain mythic quality, but they are always 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 they always depart from the real, the palpable and physical.”
The result is akin to a tragicomic fusion of dream and waking life.
Rodrigues seems to me the perfect example of an artist advancing a specifically queer sensibility and aesthetic that goes beyond the sexuality of the 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 them the best way I can.