The Ornithologist

The-Ornithologist-rev The Ornithologist  (2017)    Strand Releasing/Adventure-Drama    RT: 117 minutes    No MPAA rating (thematic elements)    Director: Joao Pedro Rodrigues    Screenplay: Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Diogo Varela Silva    Music: Severine Ballon    Cinematography: Rui Pocas    Release date: July 7, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcao, Isabelle Puntel.      Spoken in Portuguese, Mandarin and Latin w/English subtitles


 What a strange and wonderful film The Ornithologist is. I didn’t know it going in but the protagonist’s journey (both physical and spiritual) parallels that of St. Anthony, a friar of the Franciscan Order in 13th century Portugal. Since I wasn’t brought up Catholic, I know next to nothing about the saints. I read St. Anthony’s Wikipedia page before I started this review; it makes a few things in the movie clearer. Still, it’s one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in a while. How can I possibly describe it? [Dramatic pause, count to 10] Okay, I’ve got it! It’s the product of a hypothetical collaboration between Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo).

the ornithologist poster It begins with an ornithologist named Fernando (Hamy, Disorder) trekking through a Portuguese forest to look for black storks, an endangered species. He’s all alone out there or so he thinks. In the 21st century, nobody is ever really alone. He gets a call on his cell phone (there’s reception out there?) from his boyfriend (I think) reminding him to take his pills. He then heads on down the river on his kayak. All seems to be going well until he capsizes and nearly drowns. Thankfully, he’s saved by a couple of Chinese girls, Fei (Wen) and Lin (Suan), on a religious pilgrimage. There’s a bit of a language barrier but they manage to communicate that they’re scared and wish him to accompany them to their destination. He refuses because it’s in the opposite direction from where he’s going. He wakes up the next morning stripped down to his skivvies and bound to a tree. The girls mean him serious harm. Fernando manages to escape and that’s when his spiritual journey really begins.

 The deeper into the forest Fernando goes, the more surreal The Ornithologist becomes. At one point, he meets a mute shepherd named Jesus (Cagiao) with whom he shares a few moments of intimacy. He encounters a tribe that wears feathered costumes and performs strange rituals. He also encounters a trio of topless female hunters who offer to help him get back to civilization. By this time, Fernando isn’t so sure that’s where he belongs as he’s developed a strong connection with nature.

 I don’t want to divulge too much of what happens in The Ornithologist. Some things are best left for the viewer to discover and interpret for him/herself. I will say that The Ornithologist is a film of great beauty. It takes place entirely outdoors. Director (and co-writer) Joao Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma) turns the forest into a place of spirituality, the earthly home of God. He posits that it’s humanity NOT nature that’s cruel. Moreover, modern conveniences have no place in it. Some places are best left alone by visitors with good intentions. Look at what happened to many Jesuit priests that tried to bring Christianity to primitive tribes.

 The ending of The Ornithologist is especially bizarre. All I’ll say on that is a transformation of sorts takes place that makes the St. Anthony parallel as clear as day. As Fernando, Hamy does an amazing job. He may be physically strong but he’s also vulnerable and scared as any stranger in a strange land would be. Underneath the religious symbolism, The Ornithologist is a story of survival that moves to its own unique beat. It’s an adventure film of a different kind. Very often, it’s placid, still and meditative. It allows Fernando time to ponder his place in nature; he serves as a surrogate for the viewer asking the same deep questions. The cinematography by Rui Pocas is strikingly beautiful. Music is used very sparingly; the natural sounds of the forest (e.g. birds, water flowing, branches cracking underfoot) serve as the film’s score. The Ornithologist is truly a brilliant film. It’s extremely well-made and will leave you thinking for days about what it all means. 

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