4. The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo). João Pedro Rodrigues. Portugal/France/Brazil.
Sensationally blasphemous and relentlessly eerie, the latest provocation from director João Pedro Rodrigues (To Die Like a Man, O Fantasma) reimagines the life of Portuguese saint, Anthony of Padua (or Santo António), as a hunky gay ornithologist, played by French actor Paul Hamy (Malgré la nuit) whose bird observations lead him astray alongside a river in northern Portugal. As he washes ashore, he’s found by two Christian missionaries from China, which starts a cascade of surreal, menacing encounters in the woods that align the river fjord.
With his fifth feature film, Rodrigues has crafted his most approachable film to date and one which feels especially personal considering the director’s history as an ornithologist and his mysterious appearances throughout the film itself. While I’ve adored all of his previous films, I probably couldn’t recommend them as widely as I feel I can with The Ornithologist, a film that is probably best described as what you might get from a remake of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Coincidentally, The Ornithologist has a lot in common with Guiraudie’s follow-up to Stranger, Staying Vertical (Rester vertical), which premiered in competition at Cannes back in May. Both films exist in dreamlike spaces where the protagonists abandon their work projects (in Vertical, he’s a filmmaker struggling with completing his latest screenplay) to embark on unexpected, homoerotic quests.
Both Rodrigues and Guiraudie have well-defined visual and tonal styles, and both dive headfirst with their 2016 offerings with very different results. While I admired the fact that Guiraudie followed his biggest success to date with an unusual and personal project, Staying Vertical is a frustrating and, at times, inscrutable film. With The Ornithologist, Rodrigues takes his audience on a journey of amazement and wonder. It’s an arresting experience, whether you have knowledge of the life of Santo António or not. Both The Ornithologist and Staying Vertical are bold works from two of the most gifted queer cineastes working today, but for as puzzling and mysterious as The Ornithologist may be, it’s also enormously spooky, terribly sexy, and breathtakingly beautiful.
The Ornithologist premiered at the Locarno Film Festival this year, where it won the Best Director prize. It will be released theatrically in the U.S. next summer through Strand Releasing.
With: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcao, Isabelle Puntel