João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist is a charmingly erotic, beautiful and surprisingly amusing queer reimagining of the tale of Saint Antony. Despite his protests about the existence of a ‘Portugese Cinema’, Rodrigues creates a stunning and subjective ode to the Portugese saint and landscape.
The Orthinologist works in its baffling beauty as a piece of self-discovery aside from its religious references. Fernando (Paul Hamy), the titular ornithologist, finds himself displaced from his medication, unconscious and floating in a creek when, in a moment of intense birdwatching, his kayak is swept through some rapids. As Fernando struggles to find his way back to his camp he experiences a series of increasingly strange encounters which culminate with his complete transformation into Saint Anthony, played by Rodrigues himself.
Rodrigues maintains his auteurist exploration of transformation through this queer illustration of Saint Antony’s life via Saint Sebastian, Saint Francis, Chinese pilgrims, some drunk cosplayers, fatal skinny-dipping and semi-naked Latin-speaking hunters. An understanding of these elements will add to an appreciation of the film, but are by no means essential. Fernando’s journey is geographical, spiritual, physical, sexual and allegorical as he submits to his isolation and yields to each bizarre scenario that his fate thrusts upon him.
Ahead of the screening of The Ornithologist I held very little hope or ambition to emerge two hours later with a firm grasp on what the latest Rodrigues film was ‘about’. While Catholic motifs abound and the references to the Franciscan monk’s life ground the film in a narrative that is discernible and engaging, this is a deeply personal film. What I was not expecting was for this film to be so funny, with camp and absurd beats heightened by some self-conscious delivery from Hamy and Rui Poças’ striking yet restrained camera.
Generously folding some awkward screen moments into a layer of self-aware comedy does not absolve this film of all faults. Tonally the film struggles to shift from drama to comedy. Scenes of a ‘bizarre ritual’ lack any gravity and lend the early spiritual mysteries an air of silliness. Fernando’s motivation is inconsistent and sometimes a little too convenient to enable a relatable film-world to be developed. This inconsistency further underpins Rodrigues’ approach to his audience. While he largely trusts viewers to come along with him, at times he seems spooked, leaving characters nervously spelling out what had just been visually told.
Despite these minor frustrations, The Ornithologist is a beautiful and funny ride through the northern Portuguese wilderness and João Pedro Rodrigues’ relationship to a notable figure of faith.
The Ornithologist is a Nova Cinemas exclusive film and is in cinemas from November 2.