Utterly adventurous, João Pedro Rodrigues’s dizzying and highly personal The Ornithologist is loosely based on the life of St. Anthony of Padua and unfolds in the remote northeast wilderness of the director’s native Portugal, where the film’s central figure, the handsome Fernando (played by Paul Hamy, but voiced by Rodrigues), kayaks along a river searching for rare birds. A serene and docile mood—Rui Poças’s majestic widescreen cinematography occasionally resembles something out of a nature doc or travelogue—eventually gives way to a phantasmagoric and occasionally surreal examination of the unique intersections between religion and fantasy. Fernando’s journey, which places him on a mythical road to personal, sexual and spiritual awakening, reflects the life of not only St. Anthony, but also of Rodrigues himself, who replaces Fernando in the film, toward the end.
The nature of transformation—psychological, physical, and eventually metaphysical—points to a unique kind of self-enlightenment capable through the process of creating cinema and experiencing nature, which Rodrigues compares to an alternately spiritual and erotic endeavor. During his stint in the jungle, Fernando encounters a pair of Chinese lesbians as well as a trio of bare-breasted huntresses, evades evil forest demons and has some one-on-one time with Jesus Christ. He’s also peed on. The film bears stylistic similarities to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Genet, but Rodrigues, who describes The Ornithologist as “an adventure film,” is also channeling a somewhat surprising source: John Ford. Like a typical Ford protagonist, Fernando endures a series of trials and tribulations amid a natural yet arduous landscape, with the ultimate goal being personal transformation. Here, the exploration of the transformative process, under the specific guise of a religious and sexual awakening, proves more subversive and irreverent than anything Ford ever attempted, but the rhythms—and thus the catharsis—feel unexpectedly the same.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2016 | Dispatch 2.