João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist got a fair amount of attention at film festivals, mesmerising many (and winning awards in the process), while rather perplexing others. However, a film inspired by the wanderings of St. Anthony of Padua and from a director not well known for making particularly accessible movies, isn’t likely to be straightforward.
The Ornithologist of the title is Fernando, who is out on his own in the wilds looking for black storks. After his kayak is caught in the rapids and destroyed, he is rescued by two young, Chinese women who are on a pilgrimage. However, his rescuers soon reveal a darker side, with Fernando ending up in his underwear tied to a tree.
That’s just the start of his troubles, as he wanders the wilderness, coming across strange sights and unexpected challenges – including a topless deaf-mute goatherd, where things turn erotic and then violent.
This is a film that will either entrance you, or bore you. It doesn’t have a typical beginning, middle and end, instead taking the main character on magical-realist journey that seems to both challenge and frustrate him. It’s an attempt to mythologise religion with a queer eye and sensibility, while simultaneously questioning the act of watching. There’s also an edge where it suggests it may all be a big joke – a myth of growing ludicrousness where our ‘hero’ is tested in ways that lead to figurative dead-ends that reflect back on itself.
Or is the whole more grandiose and symbolic than that? Fernando ignore texts from someone who loves him, so is this really a more internal journey – the world inside the mind made flesh? After all, Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and at times Fernando seems to be actively trying not to be found.
If that sounds like the sort of thing that might get your brain going, you’ll love the film. However, if all that sounds like arthouse nonsense to you, you’ll just see a bloke wandering around aimlessly for no real reason, as this is not the sort of movie that offers easy access to the viewer.
Even if you are entranced, the barriers the film puts up to actively avoid easy interpretation tend to have a slightly alienating effect. Despite the intrigue that actor Paul Hamy manages to build in the central role – a role he has the perfect physicality for – the movie’s slightly fever dream approach constantly made me suspect it had fewer ideas than it’s pretending to have. Even the Jesus alter-egos and man lost in the wilderness strangeness are slightly cliched ideas, even from a queer perspective. However, it’s certainly never dull, it’s often challenging and bizarre, and it’s also pretty beautiful, with a lot of it filmed almost like a nature documentary.
Ultimately, it is a movie that will be a very individual experience for each viewer, as it is so reliant on them to take Fernando’s journey and give it mental life, and imbue it with personal meaning. Some will rise to that challenge with aplomb, while other won’t understand what on earth if going on.
Overall Verdict: The Ornithologist in a strange and rather frustrating movie, but one that some viewers with be utterly mesmerised by, while others will simply be bored and perplexed.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac