Breaking onto the scene with his feature film in 2000, O Fantasma, João Pedro Rodrigues has since established himself as one of the most lauded filmmakers in contemporary Portugese cinema. As a director, he is known for the varied influences, cognitive weight and sense of queer identity that permeates much of his work. With O Ornitólogo, Rodrigues has made his most captivating and complex work to date. We caught up with the director to discuss its personal elements, the process that inspired it, and the broader context underpinning it at Locarno Film Festival.
The film very quickly developed into something that I wasn’t expecting at all and there were so many different competing elements and influences throughout the work. By the end of it, I was stunned and I loved it, but I was really interested in what the first idea you had that built into the rest of the film was or if you always envisaged it to be such a broad and, I guess, very wide-reaching work.
I’m trying to remember because sometimes it’s not very easy, because I’ve been working on this film for, I don’t know, 4 or 5 years now. Sometimes I’m not so conscious at which point … Perhaps the starting point, of course, was I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a child. I studied biology then, so I come from … My parents are more from a scientific background and so I went to faculty of biology and … but then, meanwhile when I was 15, I started to go very often to the cinema.
I tend to do things in an obsessive way, and so even if I went to biology, I knew that it was not my place. I stopped and I went o film school and then … So this film is a lot. I think about perhaps a path that I could have done if I hadn’t changed it, if I wasn’t deviated. I don’t know how to say that. Okay. Can I say it but … ?
From the scientific studies to, I don’t know, to film. Then meanwhile, I did several films so I also changed. I’m not trying to think about myself in retrospect in the sense that I … how I was at the time. This is more how I am now, because I think the film is personal even though it’s not my autobiography but it’s personal, as I think every other work that I’ve done. I think it all started from there, and then the film build it up itself.
When I found the locations, there were some places that were really inspiring. So the structure was also, in a way, deviated by the locations, by the actors. Like the character of, for instance, the guided place, the double character of Jesus and Thomas, I found him in a shot that I made previously called The King’s Body. When I saw him in that film, I immediately thought that he would be the right actor to play this film.
It also changed because I had imagined someone else because I had no one in mind when I wrote the first chapter of the script. It’s all kept going in a different direction, slightly different I would say. There was this main idea that … like a structure on also the life of Saint Anthony, the mythical life of Saint Anthony, but that gave me these points of attach with a story that preexisted in a way. I used moments from this mythical life as I tried to find ways of transforming them into, in a way … how do you say? Because it’s a story that happened in the middle ages, and the film is not set in the middle ages. It’s set now. I tried to-
Change the context?
Yeah, the context and also in towards what really interested me or what really was inspiring for me, even changing characters. I dealt with all of that material with a lot of freedom so that I was not really worried of my inaccurate portrait of a the life of a saint, which is not the film. It is but it’s not. I always like this idea that things are and at the same times, they aren’t.
I think an interesting thing I heard you actually mention about the film, either in the Q&A after or in an interview that I read, was describing it as a Pasolini-style, western. It made me think a little bit about, I guess, some of his films. They were quite inspired by elements of religion but not really the religion itself, more like more abstract spirituality I guess in the-
Pasolini also comes from a country where Catholicism and the church really has a strong imprint in the country and the way society is organised. Nowadays, it’s not that much, but especially until ’74 when we had the revolution, we had the dictatorship and one of the pillars of that dictatorship was religion.
Yeah. That is very much inside our culture and I like to get to, I don’t know, I would say play because I think the film has also some kind of playfulness with those myth and with those places of Portuguese culture and to transform them in a way that they become my own. I say that because the idea was to make it western, but westerns are set in nature. It is one of my favorite genres. I really love western films.
If you think a film about … do you know Uccellacci e uccellini, the Pasolini film? It’s called The Hawks and the Sparrows.
No, I haven’t actually.
No? It’s the most amazing film. It’s with Totò and Ninetto Davoli. It’s like an old man and a young boy and they are traveling around the country. There’s a crow that speaks. It’s really an amazing film. You should see it, but there’s also this reflection of Italy also. There’s also this playfulness of an older guy, he has more knowledge and the younger guy who is learning and happy to learn.
There’s this relationship between master and disciple in a way, of like … if you think about the orders like the Franciscan Orders, there’s always the principle, I don’t know, then there’s… I don’t know how to say it, and then novices, they know how to—
Like apprentices, maybe?
Yeah, kind of like that. What I also thought was that I could change this relationship into something that was also more carnal also and more, in a way, playing it with religion and a lot more blasphemous, because they end up involved.
In that particular scene actually, where he has sex with, I guess, Jesus in that sense, it reminded me a bit of before they actually even had any kind of intimacy into that. I was looking at it and was flashing back a little bit and thinking of the film Stranger by the Lake, and as that went on, I saw a lot of interesting parallels in it and then a lot of really distinct things that then, in the rest of the film, were built into the rest of the film in a way that it became a lot more, I guess, personal for you. I was interested if you’ve seen that movie or like-?
I saw it and I like Guiraudie’s film but I don’t think there’s really a connection. I think it’s just more … I don’t know, it’s like two naked people by a river. Because I think it’s … I don’t know, I think my film really plays much more into mythology because even Jesus, of course it’s also a name, Jesus, like the real—
Quite a common one as well, right?
Yeah, it’s a common one but it’s a name. Jesus comes from … he’s Jesus. Of course, he’s Jesus also and he’s also John the Baptist. John the Baptist had the chip and he’s always portrayed the one that baptized Christ. I don’t know if you know about religion but the—
A bit. But more the imagery, rather than a lot of the details of the stories—
He’s always portrayed with, how do you say, a lamb because he was a shepherd. There’s a lot of religious and biblical mythology in the film. What I try to do is to play with it but at the same time, it’s like religious painting that I think although I’m not a religious person myself, and I don’t have any religious background, My parents were not religious at all so I arrived to religion through painting, I think, and through art, in the writing and the literature stemming from it.
I think there’s always this interesting contradiction between how do you paint the saint because the saint is also a man or a woman. It can be also a woman saint but you have to give him or her flesh, and it looks like a real person. At the same time, it can be very voluptuous or very carnal but at the same time, it’s a saint. I like this contradiction between … Even in religious painting like if you think about someone like Caravaggio, the painter, sometimes some of his work was refused.
He was commissioned to make several works by the church. They refused his versions. He had to repaint because they were too carnal or, in a way, too blasphemous for the priest’s eyes or for the faith, the church eyes. I like this idea of, at the same time, something that it portrays, a transcendent or being, at the same time, very physical and very … I don’t know, sometimes you feel. You really feel like that you can almost touch that person.
In a way, you feel all the … How do you say the word? The erotic. Religious painting can be very erotic and also religious writing can be very erotic. I don’t know if you’ve read the writings of Saint Theresa of Avila. She describes when she was illuminated. It seems that she’s coming. Also, there’s a very beautiful sculpture in Rome where there’s an arrow that comes and also, it’s almost like she was penetrated.
There’s this idea of blasphemy in religion itself, and so that’s what I really try to focus on,because I don’t think also the film… I like to call it utterly blasphemous, but I don’t think the film is blasphemous in the…I hope it is a little bit, but I hope it has some playfulness with that.
I guess it’s, in a lot of ways, less explicitly blasphemous, but more so highlighting some of the inherent blasphemies that are within a lot of the imagery, and how it’s almost self-effacing in a weird, very unintentional way.
Yeah. I think also because you never know when you are dealing with symbolism, because the film deals with it but what I try is that the symbolism is not evident; that you can follow a film and not feel, “oh, this is over-symbol”, because I hate that, when I see films where everything is over-symbolical and that you really have to think, “oh, this means whatever”.
That’s why I also like to call it like a western because a western is not … westerns were really the popular genre. A lot of B-movies were western or horror movies were western and were popular. I think that film can also be seen just like, at first … How do you say that? I don’t find the word in English. When you just follow the story and then there’s-
Like a linear copy.
Yeah, like a linear thing. Then there’s a stratus of other stuff that perhaps you know, perhaps you don’t. When Jesus turns into Thomas in the end, because it’s the same actor, yeah, when he turns, there’s in the gospels, in one of the … it’s called apocryphal gospels. I think it’s apocryphal that you say. It’s like the gospels that don’t follow the canonical bible.
It’s said that Jesus and Thomas were perhaps brothers and twins. So that’s why it’s the same actor and also, Thomas was the apostle who doubted that Christ had resurrected. That’s why he… there’s a very famous scene, it’s called ‘Doubting Thomas’, and there’s a very famous scene in the bible where he puts the finger inside Jesus’ wound. It’s very erotical at the same time. It’s like a penetration at the same time, so that’s what I try to play with these … of course, there’s symbolism in it but it’s also very plain. In a way, it’s like … I don’t know, it’s just like touching and being physical.
There was clearly a lot of sexual undertones and overtones throughout the film, but I felt like there were a lot of allusions to a more political part of that sexuality identity. I’m not sure if I read too much into the part of the story where he has to take these pills to stay well, but yeah, I felt it was referencing AIDS treatments, and with the song at the end, I wasn’t too clear on it but the closing song is a piece that emerged from a certain context.
Not really the song, but what it has … The guy who made that song was a pop singer from the 80s in Portugal, and he was also a hairdresser. He was a very flamboyant guy, very weird guy but really great. He was one of the first, I don’t know, cases in Portugal that you knew that he died with AIDS. The song talks about loneliness, basically. It’s called … what is it called in English? Something like the cruising song? It’s about people meeting and not knowing each other being alone and not wanting to be alone.
Did these more like political kind of histories fed into how you wrote any part of the work at all or if that was just a coincidence thing that—
No, it wasn’t a coincidence because for me, it was … it was also connected with my personal life because he was an important singer for me and when I was growing up. I think these things, they keep up coming and when I thought about the scene and when I shot it, I really felt that song was the ideal song for … in the film, in the end, there’s this happy ending but it’s like an afterlife happy ending, because they die and resurrect several times throughout the film.
You don’t really know if it’s real life or not but the song, at the same time, is about being together but being together but being, at the same time, alone. I think in relationships, there’s always that contradiction of … I don’t know. Perhaps I feel it like that, like in homosexual relationships, there’s the fact that you’re with a man and it’s like same gender. We’re looking for something that is the same but at the same time, it’s like you’re looking for an image of your own self. I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s also me and perhaps it’s also my age, and so that I … how can I put this? There’s a tone that the song gives that, for me, it’s very truthful to being together and wanting, at the same time, to be alone. I don’t know. I think there’s always this contradiction when you’re together.
I thought that it was a really perfect and beautiful way to end the film. I think I gathered everything I’d seen in the competition so far. It was the ending that I was watching and I just like, “This makes complete sense. It’s the way the finish this film,” and it was just such a interesting mixture of feelings to watch it. Because the end went very fast.
I felt like it was this nightmarish fever dream, then I was feeling it subside quite a bit. Then it took me about 30 seconds to realise when you’d switched into the actor role. I had seen photos of you, I’d seen you on the stage at the start and I took me a while before I knew and was like, “I think that’s the director,” and then it clicked, “Yeah. It must be.” I was interested in what idea came behind that, as talking about the film as something quite personal but then specifically, I guess, inserting yourself there right at the end.
I think my films always deal with transformation and some kind of metamorphosis. I think that I should try to be, I don’t know, perhaps more radical. And also, I think it’s risky because I think it’s a risky thing to do that. Because it cannot work at all or perhaps it can work. I bet it works, I hope it works. When I was looking at birds, I thought “how do birds look at us or look at me back?”
The film is also constructed with that, the fact that how do birds look at us? That’s why I chose to show the point of view of the birds, as if birds could see different things from other human beings. In a way, they sense this transformation and so I thought it made sense really to … And also, because I don’t like to see myself on screen but I like to do things that I don’t like in principle. I try to stretch myself to do things that I think it’s not the good thing to do, in a way, but then I try to make them work. Because it’s also like most directors aren’t necessarily going to be able to act and be like filling a certain on the screen. I thought it worked out really well, I thought it matched that role. I don’t like to see myself on screen, but I think it works. There’s also a lot of directors that I like. I like that they were they’re on actors like, I don’t know, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati or who else? There’s a lot of in the company and my film … I don’t know, perhaps there’s some company with the … at least people laughed a little bit. I never know when people laugh, if they’re really laughing or if they are just laughing because they find it stupid. I don’t know. It’s really hard to tell.
I think sometimes as well, they might not know. It comes as a natural reaction. They’re not actually sure where it could come from. Just got sidetracked in my head just with a quick very side thing, who was the director who Buster Keaton worked with towards the end of his life where they had that really tense relationship with one another, where it was like hated each other?
Buster Keaton had made the only film that Samuel Beckett directed in?
That was the one, Notfilm.
Yeah, Notfilm. I agree.
I just remembered because I watched that documentary—
Oh, the one about the making of—
Yeah. I guess the question I wanted to ask to wrap up was a broader question about Portugal’s cinema today. I feel like recently, especially in the last few years… Arabian Nights from Miguel Gomes won Sydney Film Festival last year. Pedro Costa’s Horse Money screened in Melbourne and our site praised it pretty heavily. Then there’s three Portuguese films, or Portugal co-produced films, in the Concorso Internazionale, and I was just wondering as someone who’s worked within the country for a while, whether you feel like there’s a reason why it’s got such a strong cinematic sphere at the moment, or if you think it has a strong movement sphere at the moment or if it’s an illusion.
I think films are very different from all the films that you said. I know Pedro, I know Miguel but I think all films are different. I think we are able to film to make films without compromise, and I think you’re talking about people that don’t compromise. I think that is the most interesting thing in film or in other arts. Also, it’s to be able to make films and be personal. I think you’re talking about people that build up their own world, in a way; that we are all Portuguese, and perhaps because we are a small country and I don’t know. I don’t know the reason. I think it’s a good thing but, yeah.