‘Will-o’-the-Wisp’ Review: A Prince Throws Off His Privilege

Or, at least, he kinda-sorta tries to rebel in this romantic, futuristic fable from the Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues.

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By Amy Nicholson

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“Will-o’-the-Wisp,” an off-balance provocation from the Portuguese titillater João Pedro Rodrigues, is a prank in fancy dress, a plastic boutonniere that squirts battery acid. The joke is on everyone, particularly the powerful and those holding out hope that the powerful will save the planet.

Portugal booted its monarchy in 1910, but in this alternate timeline, the royals still reign. When the do-gooder prince, Alfredo (Mauro Costa), shocks his family by becoming a firefighter, Rodrigues drops him into an eroticized firehouse for a beefcake feast, concocting a calendar shoot to bend the fighters into, um, suggestive poses. Later, the director assembles a slide show of genitalia which the waify blond prince and his working-class Black lover, Afonso (André Cabral), liken to various climates. (Petrified forest, barren grassland — you won’t have to strain your imagination to see the resemblance.)

The movie, 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 flashes back to the prince’s youth, where he’s escorted through ancient pines by the king (Miguel Loureiro). Some viewers might recognize the woods as the Leiria Pine Forest whose timber 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,” and so on — make it clear that a blaze is coming for everyone. Smoke wafts through the palace while the conservative queen (Margarida Vila-Nova) putters around anxiously snuffing candles.

The symbolism is blunt, and the film’s style, striking and severe. Scenes are staged as precisely as painted tableaus, with handsome shadows and gratuitous whippets. At one point, the prince stands at the dinner table and delivers Greta Thunberg’s U.N. Climate Action Summit address straight to the camera — “The eyes of all future generations are upon you” — as though to convince the audience he kinda-sorta tried to get his parents to do something. Unmoved, his mother instead fusses over a more politically correct title for the family’s 18th-century oil portrait, a mocking depiction of eight Black and Indigenous dwarfs who were collected by Queen Maria I of Portugal (and of Brazil, where she was called Maria the Mad).

We already know that the prince won’t grow up to fix much. (Ingeniously, the cinematographer Rui Poças and the sound editor Nuno Carvalho evoke a desolate, airship-patrolled future using only a shadow and a loudspeaker.) But he keeps that portrait, which inspires reveries of his affair with Afonso. Their fleeting moments of joy make up the bulk of the running time. Rodrigues’s mind is on social upheaval, but his heart is with Afonso’s lavishly lit abdomen and the parts just below.

Rodrigues blows past good taste with an explicit tête-à-tête in the scorched forest where his brave leading men pant racial slurs into each other’s nether regions. It’s a rough watch, but Rodrigues balances this shocker with a scene of shocking loveliness: a dance number where the pair’s slight stiffness makes their burst of emotional expression feel tender and sincere.

Not rated. In Portuguese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 7 minutes. In theaters.


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