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FEATURING: Mauro da Costa, André Cabral
PLOT: Concerned about the environment, the prince of Portugal chooses to become a volunteer fireman and falls in love with a co-worker.
COMMENTS: There was a 1974 softcore sex spoof called 2069: A Sex Odyssey. Pretty hilarious title, huh? Will-o’-the-Wisp opens on almost the same joke, conspicuously setting its flash-forward prologue in 2069. This is not a promising opening for a supposedly serious art film.
A lot of the insubstantial Will-o’-the-Wisp comes off exactly as on-the-nose as that opening joke. Among the film’s incompatible parts is a general dedication to environmentalism (which motivates its protagonist to semi-abdicate his royal commission to volunteer as a firefighter). We know of Alfredo’s convictions because he interrupts family dinner to read Greta Thunberg’s 2019 U.N. speech off his phone, speaking directly to the camera. So when it comes time for a sex scene, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that it goes unambiguously explicit. The film contains a lot of hoses, and some actual hosing, but almost no firefighting—although Rodrigues shows, in a CPR-training scene, that he is perfectly capable of conveying eroticism indirectly. The finale features a singer substituting the word “falo” (phallus) for “fado” (folk song) in her dirge. Subtlety isn’t always a virtue, but with a project as wispy as this—even at 67 minutes, its plot feels stretched-out—a little could have gone a long way.
Will-o’-the-Wisp flits as lightly over its surrealism as it does every other element (with the exception of male full-frontal nudity, which, honestly, is the film’s major theme and raison d’être). Muscly, nude firemen re-enact various classical paintings (humorously), and the final funeral scene is suitably strange, with a pair of female mourners played by gossipy, ambiguously-gendered ladies. Perhaps most notably, the film is proffered as a “musical fantasia,” with pauses in the action for song-and-dances. The slim runtime only accomodates three numbers, however: an a capella ode to trees sung by schoolchildren, the closing funeral fado, and the centerpiece, an athletically choreographed fireman’s techno-ballet where the protagonist gets spun around like one of those twirling signs by his future lover.
The musical element makes Will-o’-the-Wisp resemble the queer absurdity of Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009) more than the ambitious surrealism of his Ornithologist. Wisp lacks the emotional heft of that 2009 effort, however, because it doesn’t spend enough time developing Alfredo and Alfonso’s characters into much more than romantic pawns playing their assigned roles. This phantasm of a film feels dashed-off, an under-budgeted pandemic-era project made to keep busy while waiting for something bigger to come down the pike. That said, other critics were more forgiving: 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publication, in fact. One would presume Wisp would also play well with a niche gay art-house audience, while lacking crossover potential. (I will point out that gay-friendly art-house patrons are the only ones likely to pick it for a screening, however; and, returning to the Tomatoes numbers, the paltry 32% audience score suggests that even they weren’t impressed. I suppose this is more of a critics’ movie: other critics, that is.)
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: