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João Pedro Rodrigues • Director

“I find it impossible to film actors without desiring them”


- LOCARNO 2016: Cineuropa met with João Pedro Rodrigues, director of The Ornithologist, a sensual feature film full of myths. Best Director Leopard

João Pedro Rodrigues • Director
(© Festival del film Locarno / Massimo Pedrazzini)

At the Locarno Film Festival Cineuropa caught up with Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, who spoke to us with great passion about his surprising and sensual feature The Ornithologist [+see also:
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interview: João Pedro Rodrigues
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, the exploration of a unique artistic world by a director who certainly has no intention of giving in to compromise.

Cineuropa: Where did the idea for the film come from?
João Pedro Rodrigues: I’ve always found it really interesting to work with myths, and not only Portuguese myths. During the Portuguese dictatorship, which ended in 1974, religion was one of the symbols, one of the pillars of the regime. This is why I thought it would be interesting to focus on an essential Catholic symbol for Portugal, Saint Anthony; a saint in a constant state of transformation. To some extent, his decision to live like a Franciscan monk, close to mankind and nature, is poles apart from the times we live in. I thought it would be interesting to start with this figure to tell a contemporary yet mythical story, also throwing a few biographical details into the mix. All of my films border on fantasy, like the miracles, which are, after all supernatural events. In religion itself, sacred paintings are an attempt to give faces and bodies to the saints; beings who are both transcendental and physically powerful. The persons depicted are so physically powerful that they become almost blasphemous. I find this contradiction in religion itself fascinating, the idea of translating something transcendental into images. I think this is sort of the path the film follows; I built the story on a meticulous base: the biblical myths, pagans and figure of Saint Anthony. The Ornithologist could be compared to a more internal than physical path of knowledge and transformation. I’m interested in the characters, which evolve and change, a bit like people do in real life. 

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Can you talk to us about the queer and sensual atmosphere of the film? Was it an obvious choice to have Paul Hamy as the protagonist?
To film actors I have to desire them. Filming someone is, for me, comparable to having a desire that I haven’t indulged, which I indulge as I film. The actors literally become the characters, as if I were quenching my desire for them through film. If we look at the example of Caravaggio, when I look at his paintings I see people in the flesh, real physical beings, which fascinates me. Every brush stroke is full of desire. I find it impossible to film actors without desiring them. Through film, I want to make them handsome as opposed to grotesque or sordid. I try to observe them as if we were on the same level, as opposed to looking down on them from on high. The reason I chose them is because for me, they’re somewhat supernatural beings.
I came across Paul Hamy during casting. I wanted to find someone who performed more with their body than with words, also because there’s not a lot of dialogue in the film. There’s a physicality to his performance style that caught my interest and that we explored together. I don’t think the film would have been possible without him. For me, actors are unique and irreplaceable. It’s like a love story.

What’s your relationship with music like?
Canção do Engate (which closes the film) is a song that has been with me for quite some time. António Variações is a Portuguese singer from the 1980s, a somewhat extravagant, eccentric, and very popular character. There’s beautiful and genuine poetry in his songs. Canção do Engate (literally ‘Song about Copulation’) was a revolutionary song in 1980s Portugal. António Variaçõeswas one of the first artists to come out in public, and that was a big thing in Portugal back then, also because he was very popular and well-known. I really like this song, and it conveys the idea that happy endings are not always just so. The rest of the score is made up of music by a French violinist, Sévrine Ballon, who I met while I was at Harvard in 2014/2015. I like her music because it’s very physical, with no digital alterations. It gives the film a unique atmosphere, like a body in its own right in amongst all the other bodies.

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(Translated from Italian)

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