The Ornithologist

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Ornithologist
"In keeping with the hagiographic tradition, Hamy keeps his performance rather flat, but this is problematic for The Ornothologist as a film; its success as a piece of art is somewhat at odds with audience appeal."

"Are you alright?" asks Sergio. "Have you taken your medication?"

The original St Anthony was known to suffer from some infirmity. With his modern day counterpart, who, like he young saint, initially goes by the name Fernando, it's unclear if that infirmity is physical or mental; and, then, of course, we must wonder where the boundary lies between illness and epiphany. Whichever is the case, he is probably already beyond the reach of Sergio's intervention, perhaps even of his love. Out alone in the wilds of northern Portugal, he is searching for a black stork. It's a traditional symbol of the Annunciation, and unbeknownst to himself, Fernando is about to be reborn.

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At this stage the ornithologist (played by Paul Hamy) might be a man like any other. As in so many Mediterranean tales, things go awry when he is shipwrecked. After his kayak flips over in a torrent, he is found by two Chinese tourists. They warm him, feed him, care for him, then obscurely turn on him. In his headlong flight he loses his medication and loses his way, finding himself in the same landscape but altogether stranger territory.

Using elements of dance and breaking down at times into a series of staccato photographs, João Pedro Rodrigues's inventive film intermingles traditional hagiographic flourishes with modern narrative storytelling as we follow our increasingly uncertain hero on his equally uncertain quest. The stork seems to be forgotten; instead, he is followed by a white dove which perhaps suggests the influence of St Francis of Assisi. Interpretations of St Anthony's tale by Dali and Bosch, with their parades of fantastic animals, are not forgotten, and as Fernando goes out of his way to help the different creatures he meets, increasingly unlikely beasts flash into view - even a rhinoceros. Humans, however, are a different matter. An erotic encounter with a mute young shepherd (Xelo Cagiao) turns into something stranger and darker. A different set of Mediterranean stories seems to intrude as Fernando witnesses a wild Bacchanal in the woods at night. Proud, bare chested huntresses ride like companions of Artemis among the trees. The Chinese women have spoken to him of dangerous forest spirits - could it be that these are multiple interpretations of the same phenomenon?

In keeping with the hagiographic tradition, Hamy keeps his performance rather flat, but this is problematic for The Ornothologist as a film; its success as a piece of art is somewhat at odds with audience appeal. Nevertheless, many viewers will enjoy it simply for the stunning Douro scenery and the fantastic way in which Rodrigues brings the landscape to life. It's a long way back to Padua and something new awaits at every step - but beyond the dazzling fire, there might be something unexpected. The temptations Rodrigues shows us are many and tortuous,but beyond them lies the divine.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2017
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The Ornithologist packshot
An ornithologist searching for black storks is swept away by rapids and awakens in a mysterious, dark forest.

Director: João Pedro Rodrigues

Writer: João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata

Starring: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting

Year: 2016

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: Portugal, France, Brazil


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