Joao Rodrigues’ 2000 feature debut O Fantasma, a dreamy tale about a Lisbon garbage man’s sexual exploits, is the kind of film that nestles itself into the subconscious. The kind of film I love.
The film appropriately opens on a dog whining at a locked door - a foreshadowing of the main character’s journey - then reveals that on the other side of the door his owner is getting aggressively topped, possibly raped, by a man in a black latex bodysuit. The man in the suit is Sergio, a trash collector leading a lonely nocturnal existence in Lisbon. Much of the film portrays Sergio’s regular routine, spiked with increasingly desperate sexual encounters. A feeling of loneliness hangs over the narrative as Sergio meanders through the streets on his collection route as his behavior becomes increasingly risky and desperate.
The only affection sergio shows another creature is toward Lorde, the trash depot’s dog. Otherwise, he is brushing off the advances from co-worker Fatima and having banal conversation with his route partner. Everything in this film is sexualized, giving his affection for Lorde a kinky subtext. Early in the film, Sergio reacts to Fatima’s flirting with growls and sniffs - the first sign of his declining humanity. There are several explicit sexual encounters with other men, beginning with Sergio discovering a kidnapped police officer in the back of a car. Rather than attempt to free him, Sergio gropes for the officer’s penis, brings him to climax and leaves. The officer’s lack of resistance in the act sets up the transactional nature of sex in this story, as well as the impending plays on power dynamics.
Sergio’s job as a trash collector sees him mapping the loneliest parts of the city, interacting with peoples’ tossed off property. There’s a touch of psychogeography here - a map of Lisbon through the eyes of a depraved trashman.
Sergio’s animal longing begins to escalate after he meets João, a stud with a motorcycle, on his route. In addition to cruising public pools and restrooms he begins to stalk João, lurking around his yard, humping his motorcycle. Encounters with police officers show sexual power plays with erotic use of handcuffs and batons.
After João explicitly rejects him, Sergio’s already animalistic nature seemingly takes over. Soon after, Sergio dons his latex suit from the beginning of the film, which he wears for the rest of the run time of the film. From here, Sergio’s behavior is pure animal, inhuman. After a failed attempt at taking advantage of João, he’s gallops around the trash dump, killing a rabbit and consuming waste.
He’s no longer human at all. Is this caused by his social alienation? Night shifts on the trash route placing him in a dark, nighttime space. Is Sergio a man degraded or was he all along a repressed animal? His final descent from humanity feels less like a transformation and more like an acceptance. This resonates with a gay audience, grappling with the darker instincts - especially when one comes from an isolated social or emotional state. As a dark, humorous comment on queer isolation, O Fantasma displays the murkier corners of psychosexuality like few films I’ve seen.