The Ornithologist feels something like the slow cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, until director João Pedro Rodrigues folds in a survival-thriller plot, an encounter with Jesus, and a dizzying display of Catholic-coloured surrealism.
Things start out simply. Eponymous ornithologist Fernando (Paul Hamy) watches birds in the Portuguese wilderness; we watch him, and occasionally the birds watch back. In these long dialogue-free stretches, the sound design shines, as splashing water and bird cries keep us drawn to the (lack of) action. An encounter with some rapids and a pair of lost pilgrims sends Fernando on an odd journey, and the film briefly experiments with having a plot, before the picaresque narrative gives way to an escalating parade of surreal images.
There’s a lot to unpack in The Ornithologist’s imagery, but deep analysis is not necessary to enjoy the film. Rodrigues certainly rewards those familiar with Catholic doctrine (particularly the life of St Anthony of Padua), but there is so much else going on that defies any coherent interpretation that it makes more sense to let the film take you where it will. That said, it helps to know that Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and he once gave a sermon to some fish.
Whether or not they mean anything specific, the film’s visuals are aesthetically astonishing throughout. Whether Rodrigues’ camera is trained on a soaring eagle, dappled water, a fire-lit horror show, or Fernando’s tightly-trussed backside, the photography is sharp and clear, with a painterly quality to several compositions.
The Ornithologist is a pleasure to watch, but audiences are unlikely to emerge from the cinema feeling like they “got” it. Whether this is a mark for or against the film will come down to personal taste, but it is undeniable that Rodrigues handles his creation with impressive deftness.
CAST: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, Chan Suan
DIRECTOR: João Pedro Rodrigues
WRITER: João Pedro Rodrigues
SYNOPSIS: A lone ornithologist becomes lost in a strange wilderness.