By Ryan Keating-Lambert
The Ornithologist is an experimental film by award winning Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (The Last Time I Saw Macao) about one man’s journey to sainthood through the Portuguese wilderness. Gorgeous cinematography and dynamic use of sound make this an absolute treat for the senses even if the narrative is somewhat confusing at times – ok, so it’s extremely confusing at times but somehow I think that was the whole point.
Fernando (Paul Hamy) is a robust 30-something ornithologist observing and researching the behaviour of local bird species in Portugal. After an accident, he is revived by two lost Chinese backpackers and what follows is an ambitious and psychological slow burn into a reimagining of a Portuguese legend about the life of St Anthony. Director Rodrigues also tackled this story in his 2012 short film Morning of Saint Anthony.
Fernando appears to have a harmonious relationship with the Portuguese wilderness and their relationship is beautiful. Every aspect of the forest and countryside blend together seamlessly, as do the crosscuts between scenes – the slow smooth transitions and minimal soundtrack are absolutely stunning as are the expansive aerial shots. This reminded me a little of Australian director Greg McLean and how he captures the Australian outback. The scenery here actually looks a bit similar and there’s even a Wolf Creek air of tension… with a lot more birds of course, and a group of satanic drunkards…
The Ornithologist loses a bit of its magnificence though with its narrative which starts off being relatively straight forward before becoming a little stranger and then quite surrealist – there are a lot of bible references and symbolism which make for some good discussion and chin stroking at the end, but some of the metaphors and symbols are a bit much. The film is also littered with gay sexual references which are a bit forced and predictable at times, but viewers will probably still appreciate the Paul Hamy nakedness.
At the end of the day, if you think the subject matter to be a little over-the-top or confusing, you still have a lovely Portuguese wildlife documentary – the birds are even listed in the end credits. Approach this with an appetite for investigation and look for the clues. The direction this narrative goes is entirely up to you. The Ornithologist is more art than film.
The Ornithologist is screening again on November 9 in Kino Světozor and is nominated for the Prague Mezipatra Queer Film Festival’s International Film Competition.
More information on the Mezipatra website.
Feature photo: TIFF