Writing this post about the best gay-male sex scenes in movies from the 2010s, I asked for recommendations on Twitter. Someone suggested El país de Dios; so I took another look. Although I liked this gay-crowd favorite a bit more the second time around, I feel more sure about what I still don’t like about it.
I don’t like the stark contrast in depth between the two characterizations and the ends to which the sparsely sketched character is put. Director Francis Lee writes Johnny, the native Yorks boy, as a fully realized character with an arc. Lee writes Gheorghe as the device to make Johnny change. He doesn’t exist outside that purpose except as a type. That just sat wrong with me, perhaps because I’ve liked the Romanians I’ve known so much. Perhaps because I think Romanian men-who-have-sex-with-men deserve stronger backstories, or hell, their own stories.
The film’s most glib moments occur when the pair’s relationship changes by pivoting off Johnny’s uttering of an ethnic slur, gypo, suggesting his bigotry suppresses his attraction to Gheorghe. Two other similar scenes made me cringe. Gheorghe teases Johnny by calling him a freak and a faggot. This is supposed to come off as ironically cute and adolescent bonding, I guess, but for me it represented juvenile writing. Lee was especially proud of this bit as it’s repeated.
So some aspects of Gheorghe’s behavior and backstory were too convenient and stereotypical. There are some good observations, however. Non-Romany Romanians generally do hate being called gypsies. Although there are of course Romanian Romany, collectively national Romanians are the original Romans and will tell you that any chance they get. Romanians are notably hospitable; men cook for guests at least as often as women do, in my experience.
I don’t know whether it’s a strength or weakness that the script fails to clarify whether Gheorghe is Romany or not. In the context of Johnny’s suppressed feelings it doesn’t matter. (It absolutely does matter if it accurately reflects his racism and xenophobia.) But it also misses a chance to make Gheorghe more solid as a character.
Some other things struck me as off. Gheorghe’s mom teaches English but he grew up on a farm? Romanians who grew up on a farm don’t usually make it off. If they do, there’s probably an interesting story there. But we’re not going to hear it in this movie. These “colorful” details supplant a genuine backstory and instead seem more like paint splatters substituting for a fuller portrait.
These might seem like little missing pieces of the overall picture but they contribute to false or simplistic depictions and pat narrative resolutions. In contrast, I like how the Syrian immigrant Tareq leaves in Un momento en las cañas and doesn’t come back, not because he has no feelings for Leevi, the native Fin, but because he has agency and his own life. This plot choice reflects well on the writerly discipline of director Mikko Makela and is in tune with the film’s obsessive moment-to-moment lived-life script and direction.
These two movies have very different approaches to realism and these differences are reflected in how the narratives play out. In GOC, Gheorghe impulsively (and therefore uncharacteristically) leaves when Johnny has quick sex in a pub toilet with a visiting twink. Johnny sets off to find Gheorghe and bring him back, his family supporting him in his quest. The latter plot point struck me as unlikely, to say the least, especially considering how indifferent Johnny’s parents were throughout the movie to his autonomy or self-fulfillment. He seemed to exist to them only as farmhelp. That they would further acknowledge his same-sex relationship with an immigrant struck me as far-fetched. Gheorghe’s return, no matter his initial reluctance, also felt like a forced resolution powered by wish fulfillment — wishing that Jack Twist hadn’t died, perhaps.
All of these maneuvers work against the film’s style of what I’ll call romantic realism. At the point during which the film states its title silently, as Gheorghe leads Johnny to a hilltop with God’s own beautiful country spread out before them, I couldn’t have been less engaged with the developing relationship. If I could have stepped into the film this shot suggested, I would have. Most of the film’s expressive shots, such as self-consciously blocked, fully nude, after-sex intimacy poses, felt similarly unintegrated, awkward, and lacking in momentum.
Also, none of the sex scenes moved me. Gheorghe seems observant rather than engaged. Josh O’Connor seems to be rehearsing a piece of performance art rather than simulating sex. I get that the character’s desperate grappling of Gheorghe indicates his attempt to seize and hold onto intimacy but all it looked and felt like to me was taking direction not materializing the emotions involved. I’m going to blame Francis Lee here rather than O’Connor, who’s wonderful otherwise throughout.
Which brings me to my final point: O’Connor plays his character’s alcoholism so well and with just the right amount of slobbery abjection that its complete elision and ejection by the end of the film, presumably because he’s found love and purpose with Gheorghe and that fucking farm, felt facile and cheap. Anyone who’s known an alcoholic recognizes the behaviors shown in the film — Johnny’s friend Robyn certainly did — and they don’t just go away because one gets a boyfriend. In fact, relationships usually exacerbate the symptoms. As I mentioned in my earlier response, this is bad writing and allows character to be sacrificed for crowd-pleasing.
So much for realism.
No shots of arms up cow’s asses are going to make me believe much of what happens between the two men in El país de Dios.
An earlier version of this post took the script to task for making it seem that, fresh off the train, Gheorghe would have no trouble understanding Johnny’s accent. (I needed subtitles a few times myself.) While living in Prague, I met dozens of Romanian men. None of them had British accents when they spoke English as all of them did to an extent. Most of them mimicked American accents and complained about how my English friends spoke. So I still think I made a fair point but the supporting arguments I originally used were specious. So I removed that paragraph.