Rating: 4 out of 5.

As unique and singular as it is explosively sexual yet weirdly heartwarming and playful, co-writer/director João Pedro Rodrigues’s Will-o’-the-Wisp is truly a delight. Having no familiarity with the works of Portuguese filmmaker Rodrigues, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would this be one of those films that only mildly explores its queer content, or would it be exploding with color and conceptualization? It turns out Will-o’-the-Wisp is neither of these. Rodrigues and fellow writers Paulo Lopes Graça and João Rui Guerra da Mata instead present a surreal, bizarre comedy/drama/musical bursting with strong characterization and sharp humor.

Welcome to the “erotic” year of 2069, where we find elderly Prince Alfredo (Joel Branco) on his deathbed, clinging to life by a hair through ample flatulence. A massive painting of a black family, titled “Negro Rosa,” towers over Alfredo’s bed chambers. Although the film neglects to spend much time with this version of Alfredo, it still establishes the love he holds for his dear friend Afonso. He calls for the man, who he refers to as “my love,” in his time of need. Why Alfredo beckons Afonso to him is never explained in words, but Rodrigues decides to take us back to decidedly pivotal moments in Alfredo’s life to help us see his perspective in living color.

In 2011, a much younger Alfredo wanders through the woods with his father, connecting over their shared love of the wilderness. Alfredo is encouraged to take inspiration from the trees surrounding him. A beautiful song about the forest unfolds, gradually expanding to a chorus of young children as they form a circle around blonde, curly-haired little Alfredo. As far as introductions go, I was slightly baffled but strangely absorbed into the fantasy already being presented before my eyes. João Pedro Rodrigues wisely focuses on simplicity and attention to detail in fleshing out the world of Will-o’-the-Wisp.

Next, we scoot right by “many years later,” and find Alfredo (Mauro Costa) sitting with his family for dinner as a television nearby blasts on about global warming and savage forest fires. Inspired by the uncertain times he finds himself in, one year later, Alfredo announces his desire to be chief fireman. Finally, the title Will-o’-the-Wisp flashes onto the screen, curiously proclaiming itself to be a “musical fantasy.” A world of burly men exercising with rippling thigh and arm muscles greets us post-title, as Rodrigues takes us to our central destination: a firehouse. As a young prince born into a wealthy family, one would assume slipping Alfredo into the service would be an easy venture. He only wishes to be a volunteer, but the captain immediately addresses Alfredo as “your majesty” and teases him. 

At first, Alfredo’s trainer Afonso (André Cabral) seems to treat him in much the same way. Afonso shows Alfredo to his locker, after which some of the other firefighters make a spectacle out of Alfredo’s art history studies. They pose either completely nude or donning scandalous underwear, prodding Alfredo to guess the famous artwork they are imitating. Through a series of oddball training sessions and impromptu drills, the crew prepare Alfredo to join their team the only way they know how. Before long, the simmering tension between Afonso and Alfredo turns seductive during a private session—the second the duo finally kiss, Will-o’-the-Wisp explodes into an intricately-choreographed, seductive dance number. 

Running just over an hour, Will-o’-the-Wisp has little fat on its bones, and wastes no time getting straight to the point. Once the romance between Alfredo and Afonso is fully realized, it makes a 69’ing session in the woods that much more captivating and intimate. The camera pans around the two actors in complete nakedness as the sexuality reaches a crescendo of unexpected release. Another bizarre moment sees the duo looking through a slideshow of dick pics together, comparing each image to various tree types. Obviously, the LGBT+ elements sandwiched in the middle work the best here, whilst the 2069 bookended sections do not flow quite as strongly. Will-o’-the-Wisp captures a whirlwind interracial romance as only João Pedro Rodrigues truly could. A deeply effective, playful film that is as difficult to get out of one’s mind as it is to describe to others, Will-o’-the-Wisp paints a complex snapshot of young love’s fleeting naivety.

Will-o’-the-Wisp screened at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.

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