One never quite knows what to expect from the great Portuguese writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues (The Last Time I Saw Macao, To Die Like A Man), but his latest, The Ornithologist, offers healthy doses of magical realism, biblical interpretation, nature documentary, and queer cinema, all under the umbrella of experimental filmmaker that is still quite accessible, as long as you don’t get too hung up decoding every moment and are capable of finding great joy in letting a film just wash over you.
Paul Hamy plays Fernando, an ornithologist working alone in the remote wilderness of northern Portugal, documenting the endangered black storks and any other birds he might stumble upon in his work. As he’s steering his kayak down a river tracking his stork, he gets taken away by rapids, nearly drowning far off course. He is discovered and revived by two young Chinese women (Han Wen and Chan Suan), who happen to be Catholic pilgrims slightly off course themselves on their way to Santiago de Compostela. They claim to have heard strange, terrifying ritualistic noises in the night, and are convinced that the devil is on their heels, so they force him to sleep outside their tent for the night as some sort of protection. But come the morning, Fernando is tied up only in his underwear because the women still don’t trust him.
He eventually escapes and runs into the dark woods, unsure where to go next and with only a fraction of his original gear, and over the course of the next couple of days, he begins to find evidence that there have been pagan rituals happening in the forest. He continues searching for a way out and back home, but symbolic obstacles and distractions keep him from leaving until his journey is complete and his purpose is made clear. One such distraction is the discovery of a small goat farm run by a deaf-mute named Jesus. The two share both an intimate moment and an unfortunate tragedy, but every event in Fernando’s trip seems to be steering him toward something transformative, and if you’re familiar with the story of St. Anthony of Padua, some parts of this story may seem familiar (especially when Fernando has his named changed to Anthony (and without warning, he goes from being played by Hamy to being played by the director).
Rodrigues’s work frequently feels like experimental art rather than traditional narrative filmmaking, but The Ornithologist is a hypnotic and captivating bit of both. In one moment, he seems intent on making it clear that not only is Fernando watching nature but nature is watching him right back (there’s an owl in this film that will likely haunt my dreams for months to come). In another moment, he’s paying tribute to the nearly lost language of Mirandese (spoke only in this part of Portugal), and it all might not make sense but it feels right in the context of this tale.
This film ponders the question: Would we recognize a saint in our midst in this day and age? A few other films in recent history have tackled this question as well, with the answer often being No. But there’s something hopeful and endearing about The Ornithologist, and these are both qualities we ought to celebrate in the world we’re living in.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.