Editor's Note: This film was screened as part of Container, a Brisbane-based film society. More information about Container can be found at https://container.org.au/
Unveiled at this year’s Directors’ Fortnight, Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ latest feature Fogo-Fatuo(Will-o’-The-Wisp) is a strange, singular experience with its sensual finger all over the pulse of a world on fire - our world actually, a world increasingly ravaged by natural disasters, viral plagues and political drama.
A “musical fantasy” clocking in at just under seventy minutes, it’s a homoerotic adventure deep into the history and culture of Portugal, starting in 2069 (ha-ha) and moving back in time to the early 2010s and then onwards from there until finally returning back to a future Portugal ruled by a black president.
You don’t need an intimate knowledge of Portugal’s history or terrain to enjoy Fogo-Fatuo but I can only hazard a guess that native Portuguese will find much of the film’s details, which are grounded in a world of that nation's terrain, music and history, resonating more than your average viewer in suburban Australia. Having said that if you’re familiar with Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ extraordinary body of work (spanning documentary and fiction, and sometimes directed with Joao Rui Guerra Da Mata as in the case of this year’s Where Is This Street? Or With No Before or After recently screening at the Locarno Film Festival) you’ll already have a solid sense of the kind of stylistic daring, graphic sexuality and narrative playfulness common throughout his filmography and certainly boldly on display here.
What is perhaps more readily apparent in Fogo-Fatuo is an eerie tension between form and content that hasn’t been quite as pronounced in his previous features: the images here (cinematography courtesy of the brilliant Rui Pocas) are beautiful, the camerawork precise and meticulous, as is the art direction by Guerra Da Mata ... and yet that very precise form is all fused around a script which is jazzy, some might argue spiky punk too, and loose, full of winking nods to pop culture and political culture in ways that are joyful and deadly serious (at one point Greta Thunberg’s pleas are replicated by a character addressing the audience). This tension between style and narrative sits over the film’s outrageousness, its irony, its comedy, it tinges the proceedings with an unmistakable sense of unease about where we’re headed as a society dancing on the edge of catastrophe. Sure you can chuckle at some of the jokes thrown around, and the guessing game artistic recreations in the firehouse with naked firemen is funny, but the laughs never really can escape the sense a sociological fire alarm could go off any moment and trap our laughs in our throat.
In an interview Rodrigues gave during the film’s Cannes opening, he made mention of his love for comedies and specifically called out Lubitsch. Crazy as it might sound, the basic premise of Fogo-Fatuo is something you could imagine a 30s or 40s comedy tackling quite well: a young prince of a noble European royal family decides to abandon a life of luxury and go for a job as a fireman, only to fall in love with someone on the job of whom his family would undoubtedly disapprove. Obviously Lubitsch would never go for quite the level of obviousness involving erect trees and erect penises like Fogo-Fatuo does, but he would have had quite a bit of fun with the sheltered and spoilt nobility trying to adapt to the rough and tumble world of firefighting (although there isn’t much actual firefighting in the film, it certainly won’t ever be giving Backdraft or The Towering Inferno a run for their money in the thrills department).
While a specific number is unavailable, there is a lot of cock on show throughout the film, in all manner of flaccid, semi-erect and fully erect states, as well as one glorious interracial romp in the hills between two firemen that ends in, well, you can use your imagination but it ain’t the firehoses that end up spurting. What this means for the film’s broader chances of release I have no idea but I can only speculate after doing a run of film festivals, and LGBT-themed festivals in particular, it might find its way to a streaming service or on-demand platform. The other hopeful possibility is some distributor pairs it with Where Is This Street? for a Blu-ray twofer - seems like a perfect release for someone off OCN’s roster.
The cinematic landscape is flooded with offerings but with so much slop out there and the industry itself undergoing momentous change due to Covid, a radical 67 minute queer fantasy musical with hardcore gay sex is something we should be celebrating and supporting for its bold and uncompromising vision, its commitment to a cheeky anarchy of form and narrative that is a rare beast in the wilds of filmmaking today. It might appear minor in run time and modest in production, but I can assure you there’s so much going on and so much to consider about the precarious nature of our world and the world of cinema, it packs more of a punch than many filmmakers could ever hope to achieve with triple the run time and one hundred times the budget.