The Ornithologist screens October 12 and 13 as part of the Explorations program within the 54th New York Film Festival. Strand Releasing has recently acquired the US rights to the film. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
A guide to recognizing your sainthood: João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist. Starring French actor Paul Hamy as a taciturn birdwatcher named Fernando who treats himself to a camping trip gone hideously wrong, the Portuguese auteur’s latest is a more deadpan (and consequential) work than The Last Time I Saw Macao. Fernando’s early passages are rendered with unflinching clarity, along streams and canyons in northern Portugal; while chasing a rare black stork with a pair of binoculars, his boat is capsized, and he’s discovered by two modern-day pilgrims: a pair of giggling Chinese Catholic women, who have attempted to retrace the camino de Santiago along Northern Spain, but got lost along the way. Duly, Fernando wakes up the morning after his discovery tied in bondage, his arms and legs locked off by rope.
This is really just the beginning of his troubles, which adduce to a kind of great cosmic humbling as Fernando forgets about ever returning his text messages or resuming life in mainland society. It’s a string of encounters the likes of which would fit on a laterally illustrated manuscript: there’s a deaf-mute goat herder with whom Fernando enjoys a brief tryst, a squad of masked reveling caretos running the campground like they’re rioting after a soccer game, and a trio of bare-chested women with shotguns who offer him a lifeline back to society; whether it’s his or theirs is left murky. None of these are spoilers, exactly: audiences will enjoy themselves or not according to Rodrigues’s impeccably textured style, whereby these miniature set pieces play out in lush wide-canvas frames that only play up their incipient absurdity, and whether or not they “get” the web of concepts and cross-indices the film is pulling together.
Of course, the filmmaker is up to more than mere piss (or blood)-taking here: the bedraggled trail of sacred signposts made profane by nature is apiece with the inherent disappointment of the vacation-pilgrimage concept, as the saint you set out to follow maybe isn’t the one you always end up emulating. Rodrigues’s new film is less a Road to Damascus moment than a juxtaposition of possible pasts and an interminable present, made bittersweet when Fernando assumes the of the personage of Saint Anthony of Padua—the patron saint of lost items. The full-bore intensity of this last passage is not to be underestimated, nor is the fact Rodrigues concludes his tale of wonderment concludes with a track by António Variações—the Portuguese glam rock icon who died of AIDS in 1984. For bringing these seemingly impossible contradictions together with no small amount of corporeal levity, The Ornithologist is easily his most Catholic (which is to say, Portuguese) film.