AFI European Union Film Showcase Review: ‘The Ornithologist’

Gleefully perverse and wildly unpredictable, João Pedro Rodrigues’s “The Ornithologist” is a deeply, deeply weird film. Ostensibly a modernized retelling of the life of St. Anthony of Padua, Rodrigues’s work follows Fernando (Paul Hamy), a researcher on a birdwatching expedition in the forests of northern Portugal. After a near-death experience—or is it a full-on death experience, and the rest of the film takes place in the afterlife? (This is the kind of film that invites such interpretations—Fernando is rescued by two lost Chinese girls. After a night enjoying a meal with them around a campfire, the man awakes to find himself hog-tied and dangling from a tree. This is just the first of many bizarre misadventures for our hunky hero, who also encounters a horny young goatherder, some hopping, bopping men in colorful fringed outfits, and a trio of topless huntresses on horseback on his journey back to civilization.

All paths lead to one of two sex or death (and often both) on Fernando’s hallucinatory journey. Like a picaresque tale from Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” spliced together with a gay porn and some gonzo ’70s acid flick (think “Zardoz” or “Holy Mountain”), “The Ornithologist” floats freely between Catholic iconography, taboo-flouting obscenity, pre-Christian ritualism, ancient mythology, and art-house experimentalism. But rather than seeming overloaded or merely provocative for its own sake, Rodrigues’s aesthetic is remarkably cohesive even if his meaning remains elusive.

Even the film’s seemingly laid-back opening, during which we observe Fernando as he kayaks around and stares at birds through binoculars, buzzes with an eerie intensity. The birds seem to be watching Fernando just as much as he watches them, and their suggestive yet inscrutable faces seem to stare at us in silent judgment. Rodrigues’s masterful filmmaking infuses nature with an ominous air, a sense that some unseen force is lurking beneath visible reality, ready to crack through into our world or yank us into theirs. This curious feeling is enhanced by the film’s rich sound design, which heightens every bird call and gust of wind, and a noisy, haunting score by cellist Severine Ballon that recalls some of the more subdued work of Keiji Haino or The Dead C.

Rodrigues manages to escalate the story’s stakes without ever fitting his eccentric, rambling incidents into a narrative box. The result is a film that seems able to do pretty much anything it wants, holding its audience with the sheer peculiarity of its vision.

What it all means, however, is a different question. Rodrigues is clearly preoccupied with those two lodestars of experimental art: sex and death, as well as the linkage between the two. There are subtle hints possibly relating to AIDS—Fernando’s medicine figures prominently in a few shots, and the song that plays over the film’s closing shot and credits, for example, is performed by António Variações, who died of the disease in 1984. Toward the end of the film, Fernando is transformed into “Antonio” and is from that point played by a different actor, Rodrigues himself. This directly refers to St. Anthony of Padua, who was born Fernando Martins, and also evokes ideas of reincarnation and resurrection. In the end, Fernando’s journey suggests a kind of purification ritual, with temptation, violence, and evil all leading to a fundamental transformation of the self.

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