It’s hard to resist a film which has a buzz. Sometimes the buzz is because it’s something unique, or feel-good, or controversial. ‘The Ornithologist’ gets its buzz from its madness - it’s a crazed, outrageous spiritual exploration. But is it worthy of its buzz, and does its irratic nature threaten its cohesiveness?
Fernando (Paul Hamy, ‘On My Way’) is a bird watcher on an expedition along a remote river in Portugal. Things are all going well until his kayak is caught amongst rapids and he's swept ashore, unconscious. He's brought round by two Chinese girls, who give him food and medical care - but their kindness is short-lived, as he wakes up in the morning after having been drugged and tied up. Even if he can escape, the forest seems full of vengeful spirits and other mysterious creatures - so can Fernando escape with his life?
This is really only a superficial and physical description of the story of 'The Ornithologist' - there is so much going on beneath the surface that it's hard to come to terms with. There are strong religious connotations at play, particularly if you're aware of Portugal's history with Saint Anthony, and director João Pedro Rodriguez has described this as a “purposefully transgressive and blasphemous re-appropriation of the saint’s life.” Yet there are so many other elements at work here - while much more than a queer film, there's several intensely homoerotic moments which are profoundly passionate and deliberately irreligious.
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The moment Fernando wakes from his accident, the film moves from stock standard drama into a fever dream - perhaps as a result of the medication he’s meant to be regularly taking but loses, perhaps something more. Time and reality become irrelevant. His adventure becomes almost entirely surreal as he escapes the Chinese girls, comes across the site of a ceremonial ritual which includes his burnt possessions, stumbles upon a lonely goat herder, speaks to fish, and encounters a group of semi-naked women on horseback. It all blends into a baffling, imaginative tale that escalates this far beyond an escape from the woods.
Hamy provides us with an evolution of Fernando as the film crosses from normality into the bizarre. At first baffled by what he experiences around him, he slowly comes to embrace it, and is inevitably enlightened by it. Xelo Cagiao as Jesus also undergoes a transformation, albeit a very different one, and offers a surprisingly raw performance as our goat herder. Probably the most hilarious of all the cast are Han Wen and Chan Suan as the Chinese girls who both save Fernando’s life and could be responsible for his demise - their characters are ludicrous and riotous, and yet their execution is impeccable.
The moment Fernando wakes from his accident, the film moves from stock standard drama into a fever dream. Time and reality become irrelevant. His adventure becomes almost entirely surreal.
There is some fascinating cinematography in ‘The Ornithologist’. DoP Rui Poças takes advantage of the gorgeous yet rugged Portuguese wilderness, offering beautiful yet desolate images of the landscape. There are also some brilliant shots of the birds Fernando is observing - but also some intriguing and lingering vignettes of Fernando from the perspective of the birds observing him.
I was with this film for a good part of Fernando’s journey, yet the story does eventually become outlandish, and carries on for far too long. Towards the end of the second act, the film loses some of its sense of humour and starts taking itself a little too seriously, which ruins the delightful quirkiness it originally held. The story becomes heavy with its religious allegory, as it shifts from merely an element of the film to the main feature, and in doing so loses the charm it initially arrested me with.
‘The Ornithologist’ is about losing yourself in the wild, only to find yourself. Venturing down twisting pathways, it drags us on a preposterous adventure through the darkest parts of the human mind, evoking change and delivering you to freedom in the light. Unfortunately, it couldn’t tempt me to follow it on the entire journey, and I ended up lost along the way. For something that could have been powerfully affecting and unconventionally funny, it instead ends as a slight story that leaves a minimal impression after escaping the wilderness.