Film Review: The Ornithologist

A personal pillgrimage in filmic form
Film Review : “A personal pillgrimage in filmic form”

The Ornithologist

Part of the fun of film festivals is getting to see films of all different varieties. At major international film festivals, or semi-major festivals like the Tokyo International Film Festival, movie lovers have a chance to get a first glimpse at major Hollywood blockbusters but also smaller indie flicks that are too risky or obscure to be shown in mainstream cinemas.

“The Ornithologist” falls wholly into the latter category. Portuguese filmmaker Joao Pedro Rodrigues is a director who uses film as an art form to get across his personal vision without much consideration of his films as consumer products. I was vaguely familiar with Rodrigues before the screening, but his new film, “The Ornithologist” was my first chance to watch one of his films.

The film is a loose telling of a tale in the life of the most popular Portuguese saint, Saint Anthony of Padua. Along the way there are personal touches relating to Rodrigues’ world view, interpretation of life, mysticism and spirituality. While there are plenty of ideas and questions raised in the film, Rodrigues doesn’t necessarily portray them in an expected or logical way, nor does he provide easy answers or a clear resolution to these questions.

The story follows our main character, Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist, as he is kayaking and camping through a pilgrimage route in northern Portugal. He is tracking birds and enjoying the serene wilderness when he gets swept away by rough rapids. The aftermath of which leaves Fernando with his kayak in pieces and laying unconscious in a puddle at the edge of the forest. Fernando is rescued and brought back to life by a pair of lost female Chinese pilgrims. The couple are making their way through the trail of Camino de Santiago, albeit not very successfully. As retribution for bringing Fernando back, the girls hope he will guide them back on track.

It’s here we learn Fernando is a religious non-believer, but as he makes his way deeper through the forest he has a spiritual awaking and transformation of sorts. We follow Fernando on his journey of self discovery and are lead on a wild and supernatural path, encountering characters, animals and entities which may or may not really exist. This is where Rodrigues personal life experience comes into play. It’s worth mentioning the director’s background as a gay man, as previously studying to be an ornithologist in his youth and being of Portuguese decent, a country with very strong catholic beliefs and ideals.

I mention the director’s background as it may help viewers less familiar with personal, arthouse cinema to realize where some of the director’s ideas are coming from and how to come to grips with some the bizarre, humorous and frightening images on the screen. Some of the more remarkable scenes feature a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus involved in a graphic gay sex scene with Fernando, topless women on horses shooting guns at Fernando speaking in Latin, of course. We also have drunken men dressed as devils or shamans leaping over fire and running rampant through the forest. Then there’s the leery, watchful birds that are keeping tabs on Fernando, just as Fernando watches over them. And we can’t forget the climax of the film where Fernando awakens as a new person entirely.

The ending sees the Fernando to Saint Anthony transfer complete as supporting characters now refer to the character as Anthony. Keep your eyes open and you’ll realize not only the spiritual change of Fernando but also the physical change. Actor Paul Hamy has been swapped for director Joao Pedro Rodrigues himself, just to make sure you realize the influence of the director over the film as a kind of holy entity.

Understanding what all the encounters and strange experiences mean throughout the film is largely left up to the viewer. Much like the search for God or belief in spirituality in one’s life, things are not always cut and dry, nor easy to figure out. “The Ornithologist”, like most good forms of art requires an open mind and influence from one’s world view and experiences in order to make sense of the work. It’s only after a bit of effort that you’ll be rewarded with a stimulating experience from this film, but make no mistake, stimulate it does.

“The Ornithologist” certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those looking for something different than the usual Hollywood fare, follow director Joao Pedro Rodrigues on a personal pilgrimage in filmic form. It’s a journey you wont soon forget.

3.9 smashes out of 5

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James Mallion

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