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« Mr Burton's Box Office For CGI Whimsy | Main | Transparent Season 3. Part One »
Sunday
Oct022016

NYFF: Mysteries of "The Ornithologist"

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)

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Reader Comments (6)

You know a review is good stuff if it can get across how the writer feels while also helping the reader know they might develop a different opinion.
Great read - The Ornithologist is now solidly on my don't-miss list.

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

For brazilinans, portuguese movies are even more confounding, because we don't understand their accent and there are no subtitles.

But I love it!

Great review. I'll seek it out

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Oh my god totally! I often think about this

I've seen dozens of Portuguese movies but every. single. one of them is either absurdist or fabulist or surrealist or all of the above. I've never once seen a simple drama of non-gesticulating people living their day to day middle- or working-class lives, running into an obstacle, resolving it or failing to. And I'm desperately craving one of those. Just the one! As a useful context for all this other stuff.

Not that I don't love Arabian Nights/Tabu/Mysteries of Lisbon etc etc. And I'll try track down Ornithologist at some stage as well. But to be honest, I'm close to reaching my fill of wry, stone-faced Portuguese absurdism/fabulism/etc etc

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergoran

"..Paul Hamy, a fine Tom Hardy-like specimen.."

sold

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterpar

I go back and forth on Rodrigues' films, but I loved THE LAST TIME I SAW MACAO and he's certainly got an interesting point of view so I'll see it when I get the chance.

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Guys, I'm Portuguese and its clear to me now that unfortunately you don't know (yet) the work of certain director called João Canijo. Many of his films fall under Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama type of territory. Also his relationship with GREAT Portuguese actress Rita Blanco is something else.I suggest you start with 2011's BLOOD OF MY BLOOD. You won't find fantasy or surrealism in there, trust me. I'd also recommend the films of such directors: as Fernando Lopes (CRÓNICA DOS BONS MALANDROS is great fun romp, while BELARMINO is an intriguing and captivating doc.), José Fonseca e Costa (CINCO DIAS, CINCO NOITES for historical buffs; BALADA DA PRAIA DOS CÃES for everyone who loves a good crime story and KILAS O MAU DA FITA to have a few laughs), as well as some of Paulo Rocha films (OS VERDES ANOS and MUDAR DE VIDA are classics for a reason).

While I agree that many young Portuguese film makers have chosen lately to create films about our reality with a more surreal touch, I believe its important to also take notice of others who prefer to go the other way. People like João Salaviza, Leonor Teles, Marcos Martins and Tiago Guedes & Frederico Serra. The last pair has given us COISA RUIM which is one my favourite Portuguese films OF ALL TIME. It is also considered to be the 1st horror film in Portuguese cinema history.

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

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