'The Ornithologist' ('O Ornitologo'): Locarno Review

Festival del film Locarno
Puts the "vision" in visionary.

The fifth feature from Portuguese art house treasure Joao Pedro Rodrigues stars French actor Paul Hamy as Fernando, a man whose life bears a striking resemblance to Saint Anthony's.

The story of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (aka Anthony of Padua) is given a contemporary and highly personal queer makeover in The Ornithologist (O Ornitologo), the remarkable fifth feature from Portuguese iconoclastic Joao Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma, To Die Like a Man). This gorgeously realized feature, shot entirely outdoors, explores the agony and ecstasy of a birdwatcher called Fernando, whose encounters after an accident in a nature reserve start to echo elements of the life of Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of both people and things lost.

Only in a film by someone as radically true to his own cinematic vision(s) as Rodrigues can the beefy lead encounter two devout female Camino de Santiago walkers from China with a penchant for bondage and castration, or does a goatherd — conspicuously named Jesus — drink milk directly from his animals’ udders, or does a saintly but doubting brother unwittingly pee all over Fernando, who licks his lips during this alternative baptism of sorts.

Though clearly not a proposition for either devout Christians or audiences for whom the multiplex is a temple, this is the kind of take-no-prisoners art house fare that advances and deepens the understanding of a singular director’s oeuvre as a whole. Cinematheques, festivals and distributors with a taste for the avant garde — like Locarno, where this premiered — will be thrilled.

The film’s first 20-odd minutes offer a semi-documentary look at a ruggedly handsome ornithologist, Fernando (French actor Paul Hamy, though with Rodrigues voicing the Portuguese dialogue), who is in a verdant reserve in northern Portugal, watching birds through his binoculars and occasionally using his Dictaphone for notes. To navigate the difficultly accessible terrain, he uses a kayak. Between bouts of observation, the solitary Fernando likes to strip and go for a swim, such as in the film’s evocative opening, which cuts between a grebe on its semi-floating nest and Fernando cutting through the water nearby. Alternating between the near-inaction of the bird and the human lead’s quick, near-silent movements to get ahead, the opening already foreshadows the pic’s back-and-forth between action and contemplation.

The entire first act recalls the Arabian Nights trilogy’s Inebriated Chorus of the Chaffinches chapter from Rodrigues’ compatriot, Miguel Gomes, which similarly chronicles an avian fixation in a leisurely, nonfiction-like manner with an occasional touch of the surreal. This section is very bare-bones, with the protagonist having no backstory or needs and desires other than to simply watch birds and swim. The only thing that connects Fernando to the real world beyond the reserve is the fact that a certain Sergio (his lover?), who’s mostly in touch via text message, wants to make sure he takes his medication.

The film’s first major left turn happens after Fernando’s kayak gets caught in a current and disappears. Rodrigues then cuts to two young female pilgrims from China (Han Wen, Chan Suan) who are lost in the woods and happen upon Fernando’s body. Though scared, they do the Christian thing and take care of him. An unexpected montage of photos suggests they’ve been walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route, though clearly they’ve veered off course and ended up in Portugal. Even more unexpected is the vision, the next morning, of Fernando hanging from a tree in just his tighty whities, expertly tied up all over as if he were an Italian sausage, with the girls threatening to castrate him. 

Audiences not up to speed on the lives of Catholic saints might initially be baffled, though as the film progresses, more and more signs start to suggest that Fernando is reliving experiences from the life of Saint Anthony (whose birth name was Fernando, natch). His kayak accident recalls Anthony’s ship, destined for Portugal, being blown off course and ending up in Sicily, while the two pilgrims gone astray who are into bondage clearly represent the Church as an institution that has similarly been led from the right path and gone off-course, painfully restricting the lives of the faithful. As Fernando/Anthony frees himself and escapes, he’s ready to become a devout, austerely living Franciscan.

But first there are more hurdles to overcome and the film’s midsection is stuffed with incidents heavy with symbolic meanings. One of the most important events is Fernando’s meeting with the deaf-mute Spanish shepherd Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), with Anthony’s famous encounter with the infant Jesus here reimagined as the queer consummation of Anthony’s love for a pure teenager. (If audiences hadn’t figured out what was going on before, it has by now becomes clear that the medication Sergio’s been so worried about might have been to stop the protagonist’s visions or hallucinations, though they seem absolutely necessary for Fernando's transformation.)

As in all of Rodrigues’ work, The Ornithologist also is embedded specifically in Portuguese culture, as in an interlude in which Fernando happens upon a nightly gathering of caretos, colorfully dressed and masked men that continue a tradition now associated with Carnival but that has its origins in the pre-Christian era. By linking Jesus and the caretos to Anthony, the director suggests how religion is not a static thing but absorbs cultural influences that in turn become building blocks for its future. Incidentally, this notion legitimizes the very existence of this film, as it can be seen as an extension of an artist and a country’s continued engagement with both religion and local culture.

In this light, the “shockingly queer” angle actually only serves the rather innocent purpose of relating the universal elements of religion directly to Rodrigues’ personal experiences. Indeed, the final third of the pic sees the transformation of Fernando into Anthony proper, with Hamy occasionally disappearing physically and Rodrigues — who, incidentally looks rather strikingly like Caravaggio’s Saint Francis — literally taking his place onscreen. This physical alteration suggests Fernando has left his human shell behind to become Anthony, of course, while at the same time it underlines to what an extent the feature is a personal journey for the director.

Critics will no-doubt be falling over themselves to compare The Ornithologist to other (especially queer) films — Stranger by the Lake; Honoré’s recent Ovid adaptation, Metaphorphoses, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s jungle-set films are but the most obvious candidates — but it is much more interesting to explore the work in the light of Rodrigues’ own oeuvre, which explores the tension between nature and reality and between religion and one’s body and which focuses on stories of people whose identities are in transition.

Rodrigues’ regular cinematographer, Rui Pocas, films the birds in a way that suggests Fernando/Anthony not only observes them but they are simultaneously observing him, so when he happens upon a white dove — i.e., the Holy Spirit — there’s a sense of interaction and equality even though the animal doesn’t speak. Similarly adding meaning is composer Severine Ballon’s shrill-sounding, almost droning score. It not only conjures a sense of mystique but also suggests the lead’s steady momentum; once Fernando finds himself on his journey, there is no stopping him. If Anthony is the patron saint of things lost — no wonder he’s also the patron saint of Portugal, the country that invented the concept of saudade — he has definitely found himself by the film’s end.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (International Competition)
Production companies: Blackmaria, House on Fire, Itaca Filmes, Le Fresnoy
Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting
Director: Joao Pedro Rodrigues
Screenplay: Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Producers: Joao Figueiras, Diogo Varela Silva, Vincent Wang, Antoine Barraud, Gustavo Angel, Alex Garcia, Maria Fernanda Scardino
Director of photography: Rui Pocas
Production designer: Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Costume designer: Patricia Dora
Editor: Raphael Lefevre
Music: Severine Ballon
Sales: Films Boutique

Not rated, 118 minutes