Mind-blowing in the best possible way, “The Ornithologist” may not work for everyone, but those willing to embrace its puzzling ingredients will find a rewarding solution: further confirmation of a genuine film artist. The fifth narrative feature of Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues continues the soul-searching outlook and inventive storytelling of “The Last Time I Saw Macao” and “To Die Like a Man,” but reaches for even more ambitious territory with equally confounding and enlightening results. This isn’t a crossover moment for Rodrigues, a favorite in certain diehard cinephile sects, but nevertheless marks a major step forward.
The movie depicts the Homeric voyage of a modern-day ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who inexplicably transforms into a revered Catholic saint. (More on that later.) As his journey begins, Fernando ventures down a tranquil river in his kayak, observing rare birds through his binoculars and enjoying the desolation. But the simplicity of his mission is short-lived.
Everything changes with the sudden arrival of a current that overturns his vessel and sends him careening into the waves. Washing up unconscious in the middle of the wilderness, he’s resurrected by a pair of devious Chinese women lost on a journey of their own along the Camino de Santiago. From one bizarre encounter, Fernando careens into many more: the odd rituals of drunken men dressed as shamans, a fleeting gay romance that turns deadly, suspicious birds that watch his every move. Rodrigues unleashes a gripping series of discursive ingredients in the build-up to the stunning final act, when Fernando awakens to a new personality altogether.
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In a sense, “The Ornithologist” is the film that Rodrigues has been building toward for years, consolidating many of the themes found throughout his features and shorts: questions of personal and spiritual desire, queer identity, and the twin specters of history and mythology. While “To Die Like a Man” featured similarly vibrant, surreal developments, “The Ornithologist” maintains a more hypnotic edge as it remains almost entirely within the confines of jungle terrain. The natural setting and intimate, dreamlike sequences suggest what might happen if Apichatpong Weerasethakul remade “Stranger by the Lake.” If those references go over your head, “The Ornithologist” could be a tough proposition, but not an impossible one.
“There are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand,” Fernando asserts at one point. However, “The Ornithologist” provides a clue to its intentions with an opening quote from Saint Anthony of Padua, a 13th century priest and famed miracle worker (his legacy also inspired Rodrigues’ 2013 short “Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day”). The friar reportedly endured an ill-fated mission to Africa, fell ill and attempted a return home, only to wind up shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. Fernando also drifts into a foreign world, although it’s an understatement to say that Rodrigues takes some liberties from that point forward. “The Ornithologist” is less about Saint Anthony’s legacy than the mystical feelings it represents.
From a perilous meeting with a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus to a showdown with a trio of gun-toting topless women on horseback who speak Latin, “The Ornithologist” never lacks for surprising twists. But it always remains focused on one man’s gradual process of awakening to his purpose. Shortly before tipping over into body horror during a climactic scene, the movie finds Fernando/Anthony preaching to the fishes, just like the saint’s legend claims he did. “How did you end up in these dark waters?” he asks, perfectly encapsulating the existential quest at the center of this beguiling achievement.
Although some early parts of “The Ornithologist” suffer from a stilted, artificial quality (particularly when it comes to the English-language dialogue), Rodrigues always casts an immersive spell. That’s thanks in part to a sharp, consistent visual sensibility — the deep forest greens and ominous shadows of nighttime scenes create a world rich with uncertainties.
The quest for the unknown gives “The Ornithologist” a powerful trajectory. Wandering about in a bewildered state, Fernando/Anthony loses touch with society and attempts to reject it until the very end. The movie concludes with the suggestion that the only cure to existential confusion comes from companionship. “The Ornithologist” doesn’t solve all its mysteries, but it does make peace with them.
“The Ornithologist” premiered at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.