If the thought of watching a man observe birds through binoculars as he sails down a river in his kayak for the first 15 minutes of a movie sounds like torture, you’d be mistaken. Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist is a bizarre, often transfixing and occasionally confounding concoction that mostly works and is never anything less than beguiling. And that first long stretch during which the picture’s protagonist – Fernando (Paul Hamy) – observes all manner of avian specimen from his boat is hypnotic and among the film’s best sequences.
A summary of The Ornithologist is not only besides the point, but also difficult to complete. Suffice it to say that Fernando’s boat winds up in some rapids, leaving him unconscious in the woods, where he is first discovered by two backpacking Chinese women – who tie him up and threaten torture – before running into a goat herder named Jesus, who appears to enjoy spending time in the nude, and a group of men performing a ritual in the woods. Near the film’s end, Fernando befriends a bird that may or may not have a broken wing.
And even later in the picture, Fernando comes across a group of topless women on horseback before coming face to face with Jesus’s twin brother, a sequence during which Fernando is transformed into none other than Joao Pedro Rodrigues – you know, the director of the film. Oh yes, and the picture is apparently modeled after the life of Anthony of Padua – also known as Fernando Martins.
The Ornithologist is a film that might prove fruitless if you insist on digging for clues as to what it all means. My suggestion – should you choose to see it, which I’d recommend you do if you consider yourself cinematically adventurous – is to just let the film’s gorgeous imagery wash over your senses and give in to its strange, occasionally lulling aura.
For those unfamiliar with Rodrigues’ work, he is also responsible for O Fantasma, a movie of which I was not a fan, and Two Drifters, which is well worth seeing. I missed his well received To Die Like a Man and his most recent, The Last Time I Saw Macao, was never even screened on these shores – at least, as far as I’m aware. “The Ornithologist” is the director’s most visually sumptuous – but also his most peculiar – to date.
The picture is set almost entirely outdoors and the filmmakers make excellent use of the surroundings. Not only is there great photography of birds soaring through the air, but there are some incredible point-of-view shots from the perspective of the birds staring down at Fernando. Rodrigues’ camera explores the lush, wooded regions of Portugal where the film was shot and captures some gorgeous nighttime shots of the forest.
I’m sure there is much to explore thematically in The Ornithologist, from the man vs. nature scenario that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Werner Herzog movie to the allegorical spiritual elements of various scenes – not to mention the bizarre sexual rituals involving Fernando and Jesus. But what you take from Rodrigues’ film will likely depend on what you put into it. I’d recommend The Ornithologist for those who enjoy experimental, surrealist and bizarre moviegoing experiences. It’s a film that I doubt I’ll forget anytime soon.