The expanse of storytelling in movies can be so impressive. Portuguese indie filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues has long demonstrated a talented knack for breaking the boundaries of cinema while telling profound stories. With the last movie I reviewed of his (Film Review: ‘To Die Like a Man’) he looked at the limits of gender identity and expanded upon them by working in the gray areas of flux and personal identity in between. His latest, The Ornithologist, goes even further. Gender is but an aside to a great spirituality that both speaks to the limits of cinema while also elevating the limitlessness of human consciousness.
The film follows Fernando (Paul Hamy), an ornithologist surveying avian activity along a river in Portugal. With a seeming tendency to become over-absorbed by his work, his boyfriend, texts him with concern that he not forget to take his medication. During a kayaking trip, Fernando spots an airborne stork that distracts him from the rapids that lie ahead. He then becomes lost in the wilderness where he encounters an array of characters that guide him away from his scientific studies, not to mention his dependency on medication, toward something more profound and primal.
As the writer-director has shown in the past, pacing and storytelling logic can achieve so much more in the consciousness of the audience when you veer away from classical Hollywood storytelling. There are many moments of silence within the movie, as our hero undergoes a transformation from rational scientist to a man connected to the spirituality found in the essence of nature, beyond stories of myth that have been perverted by such modern constructs such as religion. It doesn’t come easy, however. As he tries to make it back to civilization, he crosses paths with a variety of threatening characters that indirectly make him confront his own beliefs while putting his personal safety on the line.
There is kidnapping, sex, death and plenty of metaphorical and even literal rebirths that seem to test the rules of reality while breaking the limits of cinema and raising both to spiritual heights. An early encounter with two lesbian Chinese pilgrims who have veered from the St. James Trail and may have lost their minds as a result stands as his first challenge. Sanctimonious, superstitious and sadistic, they embody the hypocrisy of religion. After slipping away in the night, he next encounters a deaf-mute goat herder for an experience that embodies the two extremes of Eros and Thanatos and their intersections. Shadows in the night on his tent take the form of base, demonic-like young men dancing around with fire in a seeming ritual that might just be a trivial game.
On this film goes through beautifully shot scenes in widescreen 2.35: 1 aspect ratio by Rui Poças that captures both the vastness and claustrophobia of the woods. The film is calming in its pace, offering moments of contemplative solitude that highlight Fernando’s solitude on this journey. Though queer themes are prominent in his work, Rodrigues makes them feel incidental to the larger quest of self-actualization at the heart of the movie. In the end, the encounters with others capture the subjectivity of sharing the world while also realizing the world can only exist through an individual’s experience of it.
The Ornithologist runs 117 minutes, is in Portuguese, English, Mandarin, Mirandese and Latin with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website. Strand Releasing provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.