The Ornithologist

 

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A river trip stunningly realised by the filmmaker leads to events stranger than strange.

 
 Ornithologist, The


 

This is, I think, the first feature from the Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues to reach us, although it is the fifth that he has made. The Ornithologist arrives at a time when it readily invites comparison with other films shown recently or about to appear. For much of its two-hour running time, it shows its central figure, Fernando (Paul Hamy), the ornithologist of the title, lost and alone after his kayak has capsized. The river here is one close to the border between Portugal and Spain whereas a comparable disaster in the forthcoming Jungle take place in Bolivia and another release, 6 Below, although lacking a river, has its central character on his own and struggling to survive in the High Sierras. But those two films are commercial works and, despite the passing parallels, The Ornithologist has more in common with such arthouse movies as Mimosas and The Killing of a Sacred Deer which develop in such strange ways that many audiences will be left perplexed and bemused.

 

The first half of The Ornithologist quite outclasses those other titles dealing with lost loners. It adopts a slow, minimalist style but has its own rhythm. We find here filmmaking of a very high quality indeed although, when the unconscious Fernando is found by two Chinese girls on a pilgrimage, this leads to an episodic development that quickly grows ever weirder. From time to time Fernando wakes up and it could be suggested that the subsequent strange events, including a sexual encounter with a mute shepherd boy (Xelo Cagiao), are really hallucinations or dreams brought on by the extreme circumstances in which Fernando finds himself. But it seems far more likely that Rodrigues is seeking to create some kind of allegorical tale.

 

Fernando may be a declared atheist, but The Ornithologist provides at the outset a reference to St. Anthony and religion plays a strong role in it. Late on there's a scene that echoes the bible story of Thomas only believing after putting his hand in the wounds of Christ and in a Bresson film one could readily believe that one is meant to view events portrayed as God's way of making an atheist believe. But here, in a work that also concentrates on man's relationship with nature ("You fish, my brothers!" declares Fernando late on), it is not at all easy to know what Rodrigues wants to convey about religion. So odd does it become that, despite sexual diversions of varying kinds en route, many will come to feel exasperated by the close. But the fact remains that, for its first half at least, The Ornithologist introduces us to a director whose skills in composition and pacing are only part of what suggests a unique voice in cinema. Viewers must decide for themselves if this rich discovery is one they should make even if by the end of the film puzzlement is virtually guaranteed.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Julianne Elting, João Pedro Rodrigues, Flora Bulcao, Isabelle Puntel.

 

Dir João Pedro Rodrigues, Pro João Figueiras and Diogo Varela Silva, Screenplay João Pedro Rodrigues, Ph Rui Poças, Art Dir João Guerra da Mata, Ed Raphaël Lefèvre, Costumes Patricia Dória.

 

Blackmaria-Matchbox Films.
117 mins. Portugal/France/Brazil. 2016. Rel: 6 October 2017. Cert. TBC.