“Will-o’-the-Wisp”, a lopsided provocation by Portuguese titillat João Pedro Rodrigues, is a disguised prank, a plastic buttonhole that squirts battery acid. The joke is on everyone, especially the powerful and those who hope the powerful will save the planet.
Portugal launched its monarchy in 1910, but in this alternate timeline, the royal family still rules. When the benefactor prince, Alfredo (Mauro Costa), shocks his family by becoming a firefighter, Rodrigues drops him off at an eroticized fire station for a beef feast, concocting a calendar shoot to bend the fighters into suggestive poses. Later, the director puts together a slideshow of genitals that the blonde-haired prince Waify and his working-class black lover, Afonso (André Cabral), equate to various climates. (Petrified forest, barren prairie – you won’t have to strain your imagination to see the resemblance.)
The film, co-written by Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata and Paulo Lopes Graça, opens with Alfredo on his deathbed in 2069 – the film’s most subtle sexual reference. Then it returns to the prince’s youth, where he is escorted through centuries-old pines by the king (Miguel Loureiro). Some viewers might recognize the woods as the pine forest of Leiria whose wood and sap built the ships that built the Portuguese empire. The Leiria was decimated by wildfires in 2017, and the interstitial titles – “Slash and Burn”, “Charred”, etc. – make it clear that a fire is brewing for everyone. Smoke billows through the palace as the conservative queen (Margarida Vila-Nova) walks around anxiously blowing out candles.
The symbolism is brutal and the style of the film striking and severe. The scenes are staged as precisely as painted pictures, with beautiful shadows and complimentary whippets. At one point, the prince stands at the table and delivers Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit straight to the camera – “The eyes of all future generations are upon you” – as if to convince the audience that he somehow tried to get. his parents to do something. Unfazed, his mother instead fusses over a more politically correct title for the family’s 18th-century oil portrait, a mocking depiction of eight black, native dwarfs who were taken in by Queen Maria I of Portugal. (and from Brazil, where she was called Maria la Fou).
We already know that the prince won’t grow up to fix much. (Ingeniously, cinematographer Rui Poças and sound editor Nuno Carvalho conjure up a desolate future, patrolled by an airship using only a shadow and a loudspeaker.) But he keeps this portrait, which inspires daydreams about his affair. with Afonso. Their fleeting moments of joy make up most of the racing time. Rodrigues’ mind is set on social upheaval, but his heart is with Afonso’s sumptuously lit abdomen and the parts just below.
Rodrigues goes beyond good taste with an explicit one-on-one in the scorched forest where his brave front men hurl racial slurs at each other. It’s a rough watch, but Rodrigues balances that shock with a shockingly beautiful scene: a dance number where the pair’s slight stiffness makes their outburst of emotional expression tender and heartfelt.
Unclassified. In Portuguese, with subtitles. Duration: 1h07. In theaters.