Nathaniel R reporting from the New York Film Festival
Would it help if I could speak Portuguese? Perhaps an intimate knowledge of Portugal's history and politics or a Catholic education would do the trick? What is it exactly about films from Portugal that make them so impenetrable? The latest confusion-maker from the Iberian peninsula, on the heels of last year's confounding but intermittently wondrous Arabian Nights, is The Ornithologist by Joao Pedro Rodrigues.
The film begins, literally enough, with a long sequence in which our protagonist Fernando (Paul Hamy, a fine Tom Hardy-like specimen) watches birds for hours in an idyllic lake. He also takes a swim, has cel phone trouble when he tries to take a call, and kayaks further into nature to see rarer birds. The opening act, part nature documentary, part contemplative reverie is superb. Both the cinematography and its subjects are beautiful and irresistibly unknowable. One intuitively right and sustained visual motif is frequent shots from the birds point of view where Fernando looks just as alien to them.
This peaceful wonder gives way soon enough to abrupt danger. From that point forward the film becomes stranger and stranger with each new, well, stranger that Fernando meets in his travels: Chinese tourists, Amazonian hunters, mute shepherds, and more. While clearly allegorical in the telling, the meanings escaped me.
LGBT cinephiles might know the director Joao Pedro Rodrigues from his disturbing and sexually charged debut O Fantasma (2000) or the trans drama To Die Like a Man which was Portugal's Oscar submission in 2010. The Ornithologist is similarly suffused with queer eroticism -- Fernando is tied up like Saint Sebastian in his tighty whities in one memorable sequence, and has sex with a shepherd named Jesus in another. The Ornithologist is thankfully not quite as nihilistic as the director's earlier work and even ends on an incongruously giddy (tongue-in-cheek?) note, but it remains a head scratcher despite that inarguably hypnotic pull.
Previous Reviews from NYFF:
Graduation (from the director of 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days)
The Unknown Girl (from Belgium's Dardenne brothers)
Staying Vertical (from the director of Stranger by the Lake)
Paterson (Directed by Jim Jarmusch starring Adam Driver)
Abacus (Documentary from Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame)
I, Daniel Blake (this year's Palme D'or Champ)
Hermia & Helena (Directed by Matías Piñeiro)