Review: The Ornithologist

That Portuguese purveyor of loopy homoerotica, writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer João Pedro Rodrigues is at it again with The Ornithologist. Having played at the most recent Melbourne Film Festival to mostly appreciative crowds, a brave distributor has now released this flipped-out feathered creature onto an unsuspecting public.

The film stars French actor Paul Hamy as Fernando, an ornithologist studying black storks in the wilds of northern Portugal. During his trek he experiences a series of events that parallel the life of Saint Anthony of Padua – the patron saint of lost things. 

The first thing that Fernando loses is his kayak. Then he bumps into a couple of female Chinese backpackers who have also accidentally strayed from their path. They drug Fernando, strip him down to his y-fronts and tie him to a tree.

Later he meets a young guy on a beach, Jesus (Xelo Cagiao) with whom he has a sexual encounter. And throughout there’s a tribe of mysterious men who seem to be performing sacrificial ceremonies and leaving carnage in their wake.

It’s a trippy experience that will have audiences feeling just as disorientated as our hapless protagonist. Just to really screw with our brains, some of what we see is through the eyes of one particular bird, and in these scenes Fernando is played by the director himself, who does bear a resemblance to Paul Hamy. Sound confusing?

Undeniably odd, there is nevertheless something irresistibly intriguing about the unpredictability of the script, and the dangerous, surreal edge to Rodrigues’ direction.

Those with a knowledge of the original source may find the story easier to follow, but they may also be more easily offended by the sexual frankness and irreverent liberties Rodrigues has taken.

Although he’s given little dialogue to work with, Hamy etches out a likeable, solitary character whose helpful to those around him, even if the kindness is not always returned. He’s always had a commanding physical presence and he uses every inch of his body to great effect here.

The score by Séverine Ballon is even more experimental than the film, and adds to the unsettling nature.

Fans of Rodrigues’ previous work (O Fantasma, To Die Like a Man) are sure to be pleased that the auteur has stayed true to his uncompromising form. For the uninitiated,  but adventurous, this strange, exotic bird just may tickle your fancy.


The Ornithologist is currently in limited release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee