I followed along for a while, as this arthouse mystery quickly turned into a twisty goofball survival thriller, until I started getting flashbacks to The Catechism Cataclysm, and then I was really too distracted to take anything that happens seriously. I think I’m missing religious aspects, since the letterboxd summary mentions the stations of the cross. Of course, as usually happens, I read some articles and interviews afterwards and came to appreciate the movie more.
Ornithologist Fernando (“the body of Jason Statham lookalike Paul Hamy, the voice of director João Pedro Rodrigues,” per Mark Peranson) is cataloguing the storks and vultures along a river when some rapids catch him off-guard and his kayak crashes. He’s rescued by travelers Fei and Lin, who are following a pilgrim path to Santiago, making me realize I forgot to watch the short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, which may be related, but then they tie him up and threaten to castrate him, so maybe not. Fernando escapes but loses his medication, and we don’t know what it was for, or if any part of the movie turns out to be hallucinated from lack of meds. He runs into some ritual partiers and gets peed on by one of them, makes out with (and murders) a deaf-mute sheepherder named Jesus, rescues a dove at a shrine, cuts off his own fingerprints, gets shot by topless woman hunters, and awakens as Antonio, then is then murdered by Jesus’s twin brother Thomas.
Even if the whole thing felt somewhat goofy, I enjoyed the mystery of the killings and rebirths at the end, and the bird photography. Music is all quavering feedback. João Rui Guerra da Mata was a collaborator, and the only familiar element from their Last Time I Saw Macao was the use of still photographs. Won best director at Locarno, where it played with Hermia & Helena, By the Time It Gets Dark, The Challenge, The Human Surge and a bunch more that still haven’t opened here and probably never will. Oh yeah, look at that… you have to go back six years to find a Locarno movie that played theaters near me – it’s the festival of doomed distribution deals.
Rodrigues’ blasphemous exploration of the transformative process of religious awakening, through a serious of wild—at times sexual—adventures focusing on the pleasure and the pain of the body is a modern film, in line with Godard’s Hail Mary or Buñuel’s The Milky Way.
The Ornithologist is as shapeless and picaresque as the conventional Lives of the Saints, forming a clothesline more than a narrative. Granted, when this concerns getting peed on and being hogtied and swinging with your junk hanging out, as is the case here, it feels a bit more dreamlike, which is probably what Rodrigues is going for. At the same time, The Ornithologist gets a bit tiresome in its relentless punishment of the nonbeliever.
I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid … Cinema interrupted this, and in a way I replaced this love of watching and observing birds in the wild and being alone, although I never felt alone because I felt surrounded by nature and living creatures.
The short looked at a post-apocalyptic celebration of St. Anthony, while The Ornithologist looks at St. Anthony more directly … the film is always set in a place that has never changed since ancient times, in a natural world that hasn’t changed very much at all. Those rocks were there when St. Anthony was alive. When I was going to these unchanged places, I thought I was going back in time. It’s a landscape that belongs to all times and has no time.