Self-Portrait of an Exquisite Corpus: An Interview with João Pedro Rodrigues (Part One)
With his first short film “Parabéns!” (1997) debuting at the Venice Film Festival more than two decades ago, João Pedro Rodrigues is by now a household name in Portuguese independent cinema, and has been honored with retrospectives at such venues as the Harvard Film Archive (2010, 2015) and the Centre Georges Pompidou (2016). His films, often co-directed or co-scripted with his partner João Rui Guerra da Mata, have followed a pleasingly unpredictable trajectory: his interest in Portugal’s former colony, Macao, has found expression in both slow-burning noirish thrillers as well as documentaries dealing with the island’s living and archival memories; he has traced the legacies of saints and mystics through to their latter-day survival in monuments and in collective rituals; his sustained fascination with animals and insects shapes his capture of human bodies and gestures.
Kinoscope is currently streaming two of Rodrigues’ films. The first is “O Corpo de Afonso” (“The King’s Body”), a ludic short from 2012 that surprisingly carries the weight of Portuguese history, just as it also speaks to the ongoing crisis of capitalism that has plagued the Iberian Peninsula over the last ten years. This is the first part of an interview I conducted recently with Rodrigues; the second part will focus on his most recent work, “Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?” (2017), which is also streaming now on Kinoscope.
Tell me about the background for “The King’s Body.” How did the film come into being?
This film was commissioned in 2012, when Guimarães, a city in northern Portugal, was the European Capital of Culture. They invited several filmmakers to make films that were in a way connected with Guimarães, the place where Dom Afonso Henriques, our first king, founded the nation in the 12th century. There’s a great mythology around Afonso, who is buried in Coimbra, another city in the center of the country. At the time, the Moors ruled Portugal, but with Afonso (and with other kings following him), they were expelled from the country.
I read a newspaper article about a scientist who wanted to open Afonso’s tomb back in 2006. This tomb had been opened several times by other kings who succeeded Afonso in his lineage, and there are descriptions of these openings. And yet each of these openings seemed to confirm the mythology surrounding this royal figure, saying that he was a very tall man, a very strong man, that he had a huge sword. But we don’t currently have any scientific data about this man. Just when the scientist was about to open the tomb recently, there was a mysterious order preventing her from doing so because it was a national monument. Now whatever is there — if there is something there — will remain unknown. So I had this idea about how we continue to live with mythology nowadays. Perhaps it is more important to maintain the mythology rather than to know the real facts.
And you made the film with this idea in mind, of the meaning of Afonso for Portugal today?
The film was constructed as a casting call, as if a film was going to be made about that first king. Who would be the actor to play the role of the first king? I put out a casting call in the north of Spain, in a province called Galicia; in the 12th century there was no Portuguese spoken in Portugal, it was Galician-Portuguese, closer to modern Galician than to modern Portuguese. And so I had this idea that if I wanted to look for the actor to play Afonso, I had to look in Spain. Also, when Portugal was founded, Spain didn’t exist; there were several kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula, but there was no “Spain” or “Portugal.” We belonged more or less to the same nation. So, it’s also like an ironical idea, because there was a historical rift between the two countries. There was a time in the 18th century when Spain conquered Portugal, and there was a war in which we kicked them out.
Something of this comes through when the men in the film read those historical texts describing Afonso.
Yes, they were reading descriptions that were written mainly after the 16th century, because there are no records from the 12th century. And so what was written about the king was written much later. They are written in Old Portuguese, so it’s hard for the men to read them — it’s hard for Portuguese people, let alone Spanish people. That’s why they also speak slowly. I didn’t want to give them the text before, because I was interested in hearing them read these texts for the first time, with all the problems they had reading them.
There are these biographies about Afonso, but in them he is more like a fictional character. I was interested in how this fictional idea was maintained over the course of almost ten centuries, and how does it appear today. But I also had an idea in mind from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” What is important here is the legend, not the real historical truth. The “truth” is something that we will never know, that’s why it’s also in the end about the body. “The King’s Body” is about a body made of many parts, a body that is not one body. It’s like those monsters that existed in the Middle Ages with several heads. And in its way it’s also like Frankenstein’s monster, a body made of many parts that will never be real.
That body is a contested one, it is open to interpretation; it is a useable fiction that can be performed in different ways and can serve different purposes.
Yes, exactly. In this vein, the film also explores the dictatorship that lasted until 1974, during which time Portugal was ruled by António de Oliveira Salazar (I say “ruled” because he thought he was an inheritor of the lineage of kings). There’s even an image I show in the film of Salazar dressed as Afonso. So, there was a way that this blood lineage — even though it was cut because Salazar was not related to the kings — made it seem that Salazar was a savior of Portugal too, in a way. There is then a playful idea of looking at how history was retold during the dictatorship, and how these ancestral figures played a part in that retelling. For instance, what happened in Portugal during the Salazar period was all the monuments and castles were more or less rebuilt so that they looked new again.
I agree that there is a sense of playfulness here: the film offers pleasure on the level of the casting process, but there’s also something much deeper going on here with how it comments on Portuguese history. I was wondering if the enduring legend of Dom Afonso was in some way similar to the myth of Sebastianism — Dom Sebastião was another hero king who disappeared, who died in battle, but who is still valued on a mythological level. Isn’t there a “Dom Sebastião” character, a child, in Raúl Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983)?
Yes, and there’s a film by Manoel de Oliveira called Non, ou a Vã Gloria de Mandar (No, or the Vain Glory of Command, 1990), which is about Portuguese history, that also features the figure of Dom Sebastião. He was a king from the 16th century who also went to Africa with this idea of defeating the Moors, and was killed in the Battle of Alcécer Quibir in the north of Morocco. That’s something I also mention in the film: that Sebastião was brandishing Afonso’s sword, because he thought it was an invincible sword with which he could defeat the Moors.
These rulers thought of themselves as superheroes, with the superhero’s sword. Of course it didn’t help Sebastião much, and the sword disappeared. In a museum in northern Portugal, there’s a sword that was said to be Afonso’s, especially during the dictatorship. But then this sword was examined and it was discovered to have been made in the 16th or 17th century. I asked the people in the museum to make a replica of it. Because even the texts the men read in the film that list the measurements of the sword: these really exist, so in a way there’s some record of the sword’s dimensions, even though they were transformed throughout history.
And then when the men at the casting call wield the sword, they also adopt the superhero persona. With the green screen in place, one even suspected that he might be auditioning for a Spanish-language version of Superman!
Yes! And what was also interesting was that these men, when the film was shot, during the height of the crisis in Europe, most of the people that showed up for the casting were unemployed people, who were looking for a job. And so, the film also became a portrait not just of Portugal but also of Spain, and what was happening in this area with people having no jobs and being quite desperate. And that was something that when I started making the film I had no idea it was going to happen, it surprised me. It added a different layer to the film.
Yes, I had the sense when I was watching it that there was an unpredictability for you as well as for them. They didn’t know how they would be expected to perform in front of the camera. But you didn’t know what they were going to say either. For both of you it’s not completely scripted, it’s a little uncertain.
It’s a film that was made in the editing room, with all of these materials that I collected from each of the men. I also shot them against a green screen, and when I did that I wasn’t sure which images, if any, I was going to superimpose on them. So it was also about putting together what they were saying with the images. I also shot more footage during the editing process. In the beginning, my idea was always to replace the green screen with images, but because some of the footage I shot were not perfect for the green screen, I decided at a certain point to leave some of the green screen, also to show the construction of the film in the finished version.
So, they were not aware of the images that would be projected behind them? I wanted to know more about these men… did any of them see the final cut of the film?
Yes, some of them came to Guimarães when the film premiered there. But one of the good things in making this film was that I found the man who was going to play Jesus in The Ornithologist (2016), Xelo Cagiao. In a way, this casting in “The King’s Body” was also a casting for The Ornithologist! When he showed up, I immediately thought about him for that other role.
Most of the men who showed up came from the gym, weightlifters who worked with their bodies. They were reconstructing their bodies, and this reminded me that you can also change your own body; there are many ways of changing your own body, but perhaps that’s the easiest way of doing it, and so many people do it nowadays.
But not only that you can change your body, but also that you can sell it as a stripper or dancer…
Of course, that you can use your body, that these men could earn a living out of that.
But you have to modify your body enough so that you have some appeal, to sell it to others…
Kind of. But it seems that nowadays everybody does this. Bodies seem to have become the same, since everybody — every “body” — looks the same. It’s become almost a standard, a dictatorship of how you should look.
João Pedro Rodrigues’ “The King’s Body” and “Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?” are now available to stream on Kinoscope.