PRINT Summer 2017


João Pedro Rodrigues

João Pedro Rodrigues, O ornitólogo (The Ornithologist), 2016, 2K video, color, sound, 118 minutes. Foreground: Fernando (Paul Hamy). Background: Huntresses (Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcão, Isabelle Puntel).

“THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS we shouldn’t try to understand,” declares the eponymous bird watcher in João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist—including, one surmises, the film he’s in. The most conventional of the Portuguese auteur’s protagonists, who have included a libidinous, latex-encased garbage collector seeking rough sex amid the rubbish (O fantasma [2000]) and an aged drag queen mortally poisoned by silicone breast implants (To Die like a Man [2009]), the solitary ornithologist nevertheless undergoes one wild ride after crashing his kayak on an annual trek to survey birds in a remote nature preserve. Sharing his birth name (Fernando) and Lusitanian birthplace with Saint Anthony of Padua, a figure he will come to resemble as his off-piste pilgrimage turns increasingly numinous, the scientist is transformed from an irreligious rationalist into a beatified wayfarer by his encounters in the fjords, gorges, and forests of northernmost Portugal—magnificently rendered in uncharacteristic CinemaScope by Rodrigues’s regular cinematographer, Rui Poças. (The impenetrable nightscapes that are a Rodrigues signature prove engulfing in wide-screen, their lunar apparitions and dew-glistened cobwebs more portentous than ever; and the drone-enabled aerial shots, intended as avian POVs, achieve sweeping grandeur.)

Rodrigues’s River of No Return annexes several genresto its central existential allegory: autobiography (the director trained as an ornithologist); Lazarian tale (Fernando rises from the dead more than once); adventure film, with tinges of both the western and horror; parable of spiritual testing; lost-in-the-wilderness survival chronicle; and picaresque. After his boating accident, which evokes Saint Anthony’s shipwreck, Fernando is saved by Fei and Lin, Chinese pilgrims far astray from their intended destination of Santiago de Compostela. Reviving the camp trope of the killer dyke, Rodrigues turns the duo into treacherous lesbians who drug Fernando and truss him to a tree. (He initially seems to enjoy the Saint Sebastian–style bondage, or so a ’Scope close-up of his formidable hard-on straining against tighty-whities indicates.) When the women announce plans to castrate their captive, one wonders if their combined names aren’t a typical Rodrigues jape, as Fei Lin was the Chinese playboy whose penis was cut off and stolen by masked intruders, according to a news story widely reported in 2012.

Fernando does, finally, escape, and his subsequent encounters—a sexual idyll with a boyish deaf-mute shepherd called Jesus, which ends in bloodshed; a nocturnal brush with crazily costumed caretos, male bacchants from an ancient Celtic cult, one of whom accidentally pisses on the hidden ornithologist; and a confrontation with a group of bare-breasted Valkyries on horseback—transform him into a new, perhaps holy, man as he finds his true path. As Manoel de Oliveira did in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), Rodrigues elaborates out of uncanny events a theme of cultural preservation, a determination to safeguard nature, ritual, and language from the forces of extinction. The film’s rugged northern landscape is associated with the cinema of António Reis, Rodrigues’s erstwhile mentor, particularly his classic Trás-os-Montes (1976), which explores the myths and folklore of the region. The caretos speak in Mirandese, an endangered dialect; the Valkyries in long-gone Latin. And The Ornithologist’s many cinematic references—to Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and Anthony Mann’s westerns—articulate a passion for film history. (The impious director learned his Bible from Renaissance paintings, from which The Ornithologist’s imagery sometimes derives, though here Jesus and Anthony fuck instead of cuddling.)

In a film of doubles, doppelgängers, and secret sharers, everyone—from Lin and Fei, whom Fernando repeatedly confuses, to the identical twin brothers Jesus and Thomas, each with a stigma-like chest wound—appears to have a duplicate. (Even the pair of grebes at the outset prove interchangeable in protecting their nest.) Fernando eventually transforms into his avatar, the saint who expired in Padua, the setting of the film’s coda, where the ornithologist finally becomes Anthony after obliterating his fingerprints with a red-hot screw and tossing away his identification. Rodrigues assigns Fernando many traditional attributes of Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects: He addresses fish as “my brothers,” sports a brown hoodie like a monk’s burnoose, and miraculously manages to recover several missing items. But Fernando (played by Paul Hamy) has a second double, the director himself, who dubbed the French actor’s dialogue with his own voice—the very term “dubbing” (dublagem, in Portuguese) derives from “doubling”—and, toward film’s end, briefly replaces his look-alike on-screen as the ornithologist-cum-saint, completing an ironic act of autoconsecration.

The Ornithologist opens at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on June 23 and at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeleson June 30.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at Tiff Cinematheque in Toronto.