A nude swimmer, hunky like an underwear mannequin, slits the floor of a pond at daybreak. Subsequent, we see him dressed, answering a cellphone name from a person (his boyfriend, perhaps?), one thing about remembering to take his remedy. He slips a canoe right into a river, solely to be caught in rapids and rescued by two Chinese language hikers misplaced on a Christian pilgrimage alongside the Means Of St. James, who string him from a tree in rope bondage and threaten to castrate him. He slips away into the woodland and occurs throughout a cult of pagan mummers who noticed off a boar’s head by torchlight. He goes skinny-dipping with a deaf, goat-teat-sucking shepherd named Jesus. He’s shot by topless huntresses in a forest clearing. And just like the jokes goes, “What do you name this act?” “The Ornithologist.”
To be truthful, the title of the brand new movie by João Pedro Rodrigues (To Die Like A Man, The Last Time I Saw Macao) is each honest and descriptive, as its recurrently undressed hero, Fernando (French actor Paul Hamy, whose voice is dubbed by Rodrigues himself), is a Portuguese ornithologist who has gone into the wild to review native species of stork and vulture. In Rodrigues’ obscurantist and presumably very private narrative, which bears disconcerting similarities to a grating American indie known as The Catechism Cataclysm, he’s additionally an allegorical stand-in for the Catholic patron saint of misplaced issues, St. Anthony, who was additionally born Fernando. Rodrigues, who studied ornithology earlier than taking on movie, identifies with this determine sufficient to not solely voice his model of St. Anthony, however to additionally finally take over the position later within the film, because the rechristened “António” has a trippy encounter with a reimagining of Thomas (Xelo Cagiao, who additionally performs the shepherd named Jesus), the an identical twin brother of Christ within the gnostic apocrypha of the early church.
However whereas it’s all the time good to see artists expressing themselves, one can’t assist however want for one thing extra thrilling than a slow-moving, educational (although undoubtedly not humorless) train in pseudo-blasphemy that received’t be seen by anybody who it’d shock and received’t shock anyone who’s spent quite a lot of days round a classy movie competition sidebar. Nonetheless, even when The Ornithologist doesn’t quantity to a lot of an allegorical or mystical expertise, it’s reliably watchable as an try at inventive devotion. Whether or not it’s in portray, music, or structure, the underlying concept of non secular artwork has all the time been to specific concepts about divinity and transformation via conceptions of magnificence, and Rodrigues sticks to what he seems to know and love: explicitly eroticized male nudes (particularly Hamy, solid for appears to be like); wildfowl and birds of prey; the extra primeval stretches of the Portuguese panorama. All these are invested with implicit significance via his camerawork—an impact that’s sadly dispelled each time he breaks out the extra acquainted Christian symbolism of stigmata and white doves.
Like so most of the main arthouse filmmakers who’ve come out of Portugal, together with Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth, Horse Money) and the late João César Monteiro, Rodrigues has the form of internalized relationship to basic American cinema that might put their American friends to disgrace, with the movies of Nicholas Ray being a specific favourite. As The Final Time I Noticed Macao referenced Macao (credited to Josef Von Sternberg, however directed largely by Ray), The Ornithologist appears to riff obscurely on the landscapes and waterways of Ray’s mythopoeic, proto-environmentalist Wind Throughout The Everglades, through which a sport warden confronted off in opposition to fowl poachers in early 20th-century Florida. There’s lots to be stated for the connection between faith and the roots of European cinephilia; for the wealthy custom of queer filmmakers, be it Pier Paolo Pasolini or Derek Jarman, discovering new phrases for the lives of the saints; and for the significance of secret and coded meanings in Christian artwork. However maybe The Ornithologist lends itself so effectively to scholarly unpacking as a result of it has too little of its personal to supply. Perhaps it’s more healthy to simply benefit from the gentle bouncing from the water to Hamy’s abs.