The Ornithologist

(O Ornitólogo, João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal/France/Brazil, 2016)


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


In 1960, the Mauritian writer and mystic Malcolm de Chazal declared that what really matters in life and in art is “not only a person looking at a flower, but also the flower looking back at that person”; only once we grasp this two-way relation between humanity and nature, he claimed, can we hope to repeal our primal “expulsion from the Garden of Eden”. Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues today reinvents this species of cosmic longing, laced with the type of inevitably self-conscious irony we have long come to associate with postmodernism in philosophy and the arts. Nonetheless, he holds out for that return to blessed innocence of which de Chazal dreamed.


The Ornithologist is, at an immediate level, a disarmingly simple, straightforward, even wilfully naïve tale. Opening with a quotation from Saint Anthony of Lisbon – whose presence and influence will later loom large in the tale – it begins in serene suspension. For its first sixteen minutes, the film holds off on any narrative intrigue whatsoever. Ornithologist Fernando (Paul Hamy) dwells within nature as its patient researcher, disturbing nothing. Séverine Ballon’s superb, microtonal score for violincello is used sparingly. Rodrigues has joked that he wanted the audience to wonder, at this stage, whether they were watching a story about an adventuring guy, or a documentary on bird life.


When an accident finally intervenes to kick off the plot, Fernando becomes the classic “dispossessed” hero, losing almost everything he owns (Anthony, we may recall, is the patron saint of lost things). He follows an essentially passive but richly eventful path of chance encounters. A comically sinister pair of ultra-Christian, Chinese tourists, Lin (Chan Suan) and Fei (Han Wen), give Fernando his first taste of quasi-spiritual transfiguration, binding him in ropes and arranging his hanging body like a martyred saint.


Later apparitions include a strange crew of youngsters who perform somersaults off rocks and cry “Give all you’ve got!” as they party on; and a museum-like display of animals spread out in the forest – stuffed and mounted, yet still emitting their distinctive noises. There are touches of high camp humour, like the Chinese duo giggling over the prospect of castrating Fernando, and a band of Amazonian women conversing in Latin. There are also moments of dread, conveyed less in the deliberately artificial displays of horror (like in a Raúl Ruiz film, people veritably shower fake blood from their cut throats) than in quieter passages, such as the journey of the camera through a darkened tunnel.


Generally, however, The Ornithologist plays down the conventions of horror cinema. As in Odete (2005) or The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012, co-directed by his regular collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata), Rodrigues prefers a gentle narrative drift in which even the most ostensibly melodramatic or outlandish complications arise rather matter-of-factly. There is an overarching sense that life is a dream, or a trance-state – hence the motif of Fernando continually waking up and finding himself in a new, altered situation, and simply adapting to it as he continues on with his “pilgrim’s progress”.


It is not difficult to draw a lively network of recent films and filmmakers around The Ornithologist in this regard: Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who also likes to interpolate photographic stills into the flow), Miguel Gomes (love of “shadowplay – as in his Our Beloved Month of August [2008], Rodrigues stages a major scene filming the shadows cast by his characters on various surfaces), Knight of Cups (2015) by Terrence Malick (a famous birdwatcher) – even Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), since the ominous owls that seem to have largely fled David Lynch’s imagination take up pride of place here.


Rodrigues, a key participant with da Mata in contemporary Portuguese cinema, is an extremely articulate filmmaker – maybe too much so. In interviews, he almost pre-empts any reviewer by laying out the full ledger of his conscious references, allusions and sources. It’s a collage, he tells us, a playful mishmash of ancient and modern mythologies: everything from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Judaeo-Christian Bible to New Testament apocrypha and contemporary, teenage initiation rituals (hence the kids prancing around in colourful animal and fish costumes).


Filmic citations also abound. The 1950s American Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann leave their mark not only on the steady, widescreen, long-shot framing of bodies in landscapes, but also on the patient attention to physical detail, such as Fernando freeing himself from rope knots, crossing a stream or picking fruit.


If The Ornithologist amounted to only a postmodern “spot the quotation” game, it would not long detain us. The undeniable enchantment it weaves derives from other, deeper levels of its style and structure. Returning to de Chazal’s mystical intuition of the two-way look between humanity and nature, we can usefully add to it Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of a reciprocal “becoming”: as the person begins to become a flower, so too the flower becomes a person. Rodrigues devotes all his creative energy to picturing this type of mutual transformation, especially in relation to animals and humans.


Much sport is had with the literal but distinctively cinematic device of the point-of-view shot. At the beginning, Fernando is defined in his métier as the guy always gazing though binoculars, framing and focusing his objects of inquiry. Thanks to the doctored, lo-fi optic of a GoPro camera, Rodrigues reverses this relation and gives us the bird’s-eye view of Fernando: fuzzy around the edges, with intense patches of colour. What may not be immediately obvious to every viewer is that, in these shots, Fernando is usually no longer played by Hamy: it is Rodrigues himself, whose alternative incarnation as the central character is only properly revealed, in close-up, in the film’s penultimate, dramatic scene.


So, to put it schematically, Hamy is Fernando while Rodrigues is Anthony. The film dramatises the loss of one, earthly identity, and the adoption of another, “higher” plane of being. Fernando begins this journey as a confirmed sceptic: “Spirits don’t exist”, he tells Lin and Fei. “There is no such thing as the Devil – or God”. Later events shake this conviction. He gradually finds himself stepping into the shoes of St Anthony – at first bewildered by the huntresses who address him as such after admiring his easy intimacy with animals (another part of the saint’s legend), but eventually, frankly declaring: “I am Anthony.” Starting off as a rationalist who catalogues and documents, Fernando/Anthony is reborn as somebody who respects the forces beyond him.


Rodrigues professes to be himself not spiritual by nature, but drawn to the unusual models of narration and representation offered by religious painting. There, an entire myth or legend is condensed into a single, charged, iconic gesture – to which the modern viewer can either bring a wider, background knowledge, or simply take as a spectacle in all its dislocated surreality. “You see whatever you want to see”, Rodrigues has declared.


But one thing he surely does want us to see is the profoundly queer character of The Ornithologist. Beyond the fact of its proliferating same-sex couples and playfully camp humour, there is an evident drive to blend Christian iconography with all that is joyfully pagan and perverse. An early glimpse of Fei licking the cut on Lin’s knee is a mere preview of Fernando/Anthony’s erotic exploration of the vagina-shaped knife wound of Jesus/Thomas (Xelo Cagiao) – such echoing or doubling of actions runs all through the film). Equally queer is Rodrigues’ career-long devotion to the inevitable drifting, sliding and mutual becoming of identities.


Barnett Newman once drolly remarked that “aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for the birds”. What João Pedro Rodrigues proposes to us, instead, is something more queerly hybrid: aesthetics and intuition, fleshy paganism and esoteric spiritualism, mind and matter, commingling and singing together.

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, October 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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