Provocative and evocative. These two words are the best way to sum up João Pedro Rodrigues’ strange film The Ornithologist. Attempting to put a queer spin on the mythos of St. Anthony of Padua, Rodrigues charts the journey of a handsome ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) after his kayak his destroyed by rapids and he’s rescued by a pair of Chinese Christians on their own pilgrimage. Unfortunately for him, they’re not trustworthy (to put it mildly), so in the end he has to make his own way back to his starting point, hiking through an imposing forest that may or may not be haunted by devilish spirits. Along the way, he has several bizarre encounters that are all sexually charged in some form, and each one is progressively weirder than the one before. The fun of watching the film is in trying to decipher the meanings behind each episode, which is probably easier for Christians well-educated in saint hagiography and their religion’s vast network of symbolism.
I, alas, am not someone versed in St. Anthony’s hagiography, but from time to time I was able to pick up traces of familiar Christian symbology, which Rodrigues frequently takes out of context or distorts outright. That’s what I meant by using words like “provocative” and “evocative.” Particular scenes remind you of something from the Christian realm, and they’re always provocative because they’re employed heretically. This, however, will only anger hardcore believers. For someone like me, it’s an interesting game being played, and one that gives the film more grist than it would otherwise have.
It’s not a total success: when nothing of note is happening, the film does tend to lag, and I wasn’t too keen on Rodrigues giving us a potential explanation for the film’s weirdness with those pink pills that Fernando medicates himself with (and stops using when he loses them). Sure, the weirdness could be the result of Fernando being off his meds, but having that explanation in the equation takes some of the fun out of the experience. Rodrigues should’ve gone full-out with the magic realism, because at least in that sense explaining the occurrences here would be much harder.
Even so, the film is incredibly easy on the eyes. There’s no mistaking that.