Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodriguess, Han Wen, Chan Suan
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director João Pedro Rodrigues's fifth feature The Ornithologist blends Christian doctrine with pagan ritual, spiritual serenity with playful blasphemy, and dream logic with earthy naturalism. It's a film about the beauty and danger of Portugal's lush landscapes and how the past and present merge together to form a tale of self-discovery. In this case, the figure entertaining self-discovery is Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist traversing the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare birds. Patiently watching these specimens through binoculars and relaying his discoveries via tape recorder, Fernando is essentially a stand-in for 13th-century Saint Anthony of Padua; a cleric whose journey toward divinity Rodrigues twists to fit into a modernist queer framework. The results are unique, baffling, surreal, and yet completely cohesive; a major work from a filmmaker using meandering narrative episodes as a means of cinematic poetry, both visual and intellectual.
The film's early scenes suggest a contemplative travelogue trapped somewhere out of time, even as Fernando constantly tries to get service on his cell phone in order to connect to an apparent lover back home. Meanwhile, the languid pacing and evocative p.o.v. shots from hawks, owls, and other birds initially makes The Ornithologist come across like a beautifully photographed snapshot of nature invaded by a curious outsider. Once Fernando's kayak capsizes, however, things take a strange turn as his body is discovered by two Chinese Catholic travelers, Fei (Han Wen) and Lin (Chan Suan). Stripping him down to his underwear and tying him to a tree, the women plan on an eventful day of bondage and castration, but Fernando manages to escape; fleeing during the night and eventually meeting a deaf-mute Spanish shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao). If the shepherd's name isn't obvious enough, it's clear Fernando is merging into Saint Anthony as he makes love to the teenager on the river's edge in a sly queer reimagining of Anthony's famous encounter with the infant "Son of God". Interestingly, the herdsman will later be resurrected with a gash in his torso, which Fernando erotically probes with his index finger in one of the film's more audacious sequences.
The Ornithologist may be singularly odd, but it is by no means inaccessible. The narrative follows a fairly straightforward arc and Fernando's transmigration of the soul is rendered with startling clarity. However, expectations are continually upended, especially when Fernando encounters Mirandese-speaking fertility cult members wearing masks and topless huntresses on horseback, which recalls Wonder Woman's Themyscira-born women warriors. During these stretches, one marvels at the way Rodrigues taps into an existential absurdity which never feels contrived just for the sake of sensationalism. The fact that Fernando begins the film as a rational man of science, undergoes an identity swap which breaks from intellect and gives way to sensual primal urges, is instructive to grasping the filmmaker's subversive aims, especially considering he casts himself as the Saint Anthony figure. Therefore, the film doesn't seem to be a condemnation of religion, but rather, a celebration of how spiritual concerns allows us to see ourselves differently, perhaps even in a divine light. The metaphysical is natural. Eroticism is harsh, if necessary. Companionship is essential. The Ornithologist preaches to a flock hungry for mysteries rather than answers; giving us all a reason to shake the dust off our feet and preach the gospel of João Pedro Rodrigues.