The Ornithologist Review
A quote from Portuguese saint Anthony of Padua (St Anthony) opens João Pedro Rodrigues’ latest effort, The Ornithologist. Staged as a Biblical allegory, this beguiling and at times haunting story is deeply embedded within local folklore and not the easiest of films to unpack upon a first watch. The bird studier alluded to in the title is a young man named Fernando (Paul Hamy), out in a remote region of Portugal studying the behaviour and movement of wild birds in their natural habitat. A river accident sends him crashing down stream where is he saved by Lei and Fin, two visiting Chinese pilgrims following the trail taken by St James en route to Spain’s Santiago de Compestela.
The two young women seem normal enough. Well, that is if one tasting the others blood directly on the wound is what you call normal. Having lost their way they stumble across Fernando lying unconscious in a shallow pool of water. Able to communicate in English, they try to convince him to join their journey and speak of the Devilish forest Tengu spirits haunting them at night. Plan A fails, so onto plan B. When Fernando wakes in the morning, he is bound inside expertly tied rope suspended from a tree in his underwear. Which is one way to win an argument.
He manages to escape (avoiding the threat of castration too) and as he tries to find a way back to civilisation he finds the remains of his kayak positioned inside a burned out ritual circle. Things get stranger as he encounters oddly dressed pagans running through the forest at night, semi-naked women hunting on horseback and a mute shepherd named Jesus. The religious symbolism comes thick and fast, including a white dove that follows Fernando across the final act. It’s a bizarre and curious journey that is essentially a retelling of St. Anthony’s story, although additional reading my well be required.
Rodrigues continually changes perspective throughout the film, either looking across the natural landscape through Fernando’s binoculars at the wildlife, or reversing that stance to show the world through the eyes of the birds looking back at him. Owls menacingly peer down from the tree tops in a chilling Lynch-like manner and the concept of transfiguration finds its way into the surreal, shapeshifting narrative. At times The Ornithologist feels deeply sinister and threatening, before losing itself within the surrounding nature and embracing an erotic air. Every step of the way it remains elusive and always just out of reach, never fully revealing its mystery but even as it becomes more puzzling, you want to continue burrowing down deeper. It’s the kind of slow cinema that can drive some people up the wall. Or in Rodrigues’ case up, through and into the very make-up of the concrete itself.