O Fantasma: When Alienation Forces Out the Animal Within

Man or human is an extension of the fauna that exists on this planet. Much as he refuses to believe or continues to wallow in denial, man’s animal identity lurks within him consciously or unconsciously. Every time a person is obsessed with another human, they are being animalistic, and predatory. Human’s hunting instincts are evolutionary and would not fade away even with the advancement in philosophy, science and reason.

However, humans continue to believe they are different from animals and when the darker and more animalistic instincts take over him, he seeks refuge in religion, society and family in order to dissociate from the animalistic and predatory yearnings within. This denial and repression causes tremendous angst and guilt which is perhaps why people sublimate them into art forms that depict the darker nature of human beings. The seductive and predatory nature of human beings is similar to that of a wild beast chasing its mate and its prey.

This simple similarity is an unacceptable truth to mankind and civilized society is a refuge and sanctuary that provides reinforcements for the denial. However, this very society and civilization can be a cold and cruel machine that entices humans with the facade of civilization but makes them ever more alienated and cut off from their true identities and instincts. Society has a rather strange way to alienate people when they come face to face with their true identities, as being aware of one’s own identity poses an existential crisis to the society.

João Pedro Rodrigues directed the award winning and controversial movie O Fantasma. The film tells the story of a garbage boy Sérgio (Ricardo Meneses) who works nightshift collecting trash from the streets of Lisbon. He avoids the unwanted advances of Fatima (Beatriz Torcata) by growing closer to Lorde, his dog and the only companion he has. He is haunted by his own self and the loneliness that envelops him like the fog that envelops the moor.

He deals with his alienation by seeking refuge in orgasms, fetishes and anonymous sex with men. He creates a sensual space for himself in his broken down house, an abandoned police car, an alley, the swimming pool and wherever he pleases. His animalistic self finds a release when he sees the handsome João (André Barbosa) and his bike. João is as cold and disinterested in Sérgio as the society is towards him. Though Sérgio doesn’t care much about his drab surroundings or the filth that lies in an ordinary Lisbon suburb, he becomes obsessed with the handsome stranger.

The more João rejects him; the stronger Sérgio’s obsession grows. Sérgio becomes the animal that his only friend Lorde is. Sérgio connects to Lorde more than he connects to any human being. The anonymous sex and auto-erotic asphyxias provide no comfort from the growing obsession he feels towards João. Sérgio stalks João, and the predator within him comes alive. Like a Phantom he runs around the streets of Lisbon, stalking his prey relentlessly, marking his territory (João’s bed) by urinating and finally dons the phantom’s black latex suit.

At this point, Sérgio ceases to be an introverted garbage collector but turns into a fiendish hunter that drags its sleeping prey from his bed and when confronted with his incapacitated prey, Sérgio is left confused and runs away. João seems almost like a vulnerable child in the hands of a crazed monster when he is kidnapped from his bed. Sérgio on the other hand is the tragic hero who almost becomes the animal that he was trying to hide but the sight of his obsession lying helplessly makes him even more alienated than ever before.

Sérgio runs in to the garbage dump where he feverishly scales walls, rummages through garbage for food and drinks water like an animal. His very presence turns the filthy garbage dump into an alien atmosphere that looks almost futuristic. Sergio loses his connection with the human world and finds his animal self within the black latex suit. Like a phantom he runs into an unknown future, definitely never to feel alienated again.

João Pedro Rodrigues has used Film Noir techniques to create the surreal imagery. The camera movements and lighting was ensured to capture the darkness of the moment, the character and the plot. In fact, the movie is so dark that the viewer is transported from watching lurid homosexual scenes to experiencing Sergio’s journey of finding the animal within him and thus breaking the final connection he had with a society that alienated him the moment he was born.

Sergio’s innocence strikes the viewer and the lurid scenes seem natural and innocent. Innocence and animalistic behaviour are closely connected and when one comes in to contact with the society, they lose innocence. That is perhaps why children and animals are seen as being more innocent. The more one tries to hide the animal within, the more society is successful in alienating its members. João Pedro Rodrigues used unconventional techniques to make this neo noir movie and succeeded in expressing the animal in Sergio as the animal in every man.

Though the protagonist of the film is gay, the movie is not about homosexuality or even about garbage collectors. It is about the phantom within a person gradually taking over the civil and alienated human being. It is about the darkness that is inherent in each individual, and it is about the burning sexuality which is repressed by the society. It is about the loneliness with which a being comes into the world, lives and dies. It is about the animal that resides in the human.

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