The Ornithologist, from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, is a head trip of a film in the “what did I just watch?” kind of way. At various points, it is beautiful, affecting, funny, and strange, though it always remains slightly vexing. The titular character, Fernando (Paul Hamy), is studying birds via kayak when rapids take him far from his camp (and his medication).
Fernando is recovered by a pair of Chinese pilgrims walking the Way of St. James. At first, the two women seem to want to nurse him back to health, but as the sun sets, they tie him up in bondage. As he escapes, he overhears them discussing castrating him in the morning. Further along the path, Fernando encounters more lush Portuguese landscape and pagan rituals, and is hunted by barbarian women on horseback. But it isn’t until Fernando encounters a deaf-mute named Jesus that things really fell into place for me.
The film is rife with Catholic imagery and I suspect this film will land with more meaning for Portuguese Catholics than any other demographic. Viewing the film through the lens of my own Catholic upbringing, I better understood this fever dream as a Gnostic vision. Fernando’s journey is that of a mystical saint, his faith tried and his body tested. Sexuality and materialism are the biggest obstacles he faces and they carry the most weight in the film. He is humbled and disturbed by the experience, he will likely be forever shaped by these strange encounters.
Rodrigues’ film is certainly unique, making for an engaging and surprising viewing experience. It is not a sour or self-serious exploration, but rather a truly cinematic one.
The Ornithologist opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.