NYFF Review: ‘The Ornithologist’ (Explorations)

Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks (Part of coverage of the New York International Film Festival)

I am not entirely certain what to do with The Ornithologist, the latest from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma). I’m not sure that The Ornithologist knows what to do with The Ornithologist. The film is neither surrealist, parabolic, nor realistic, yet it attempts to blend those elements into coherent whole. It’s a nebulous and difficult to define work, and unfortunately, one that leaves the viewer with a sense of incompleteness rather than intrigue.

The plot, such as it is, centers around Fernando (Paul Hamy), the titular ornithologist studying black storks in a remote area of Portugal. When Fernando’s kayak is swept downstream and destroyed, the ornithologist embarks on an increasingly bizarre journey that parallels the life of St. Anthony of Padua (original name: Fernando Martins de Bulhões, just in case you missed the reference). As Fernando makes his way back to civilization, he comes into conflict with a series of tests, allies, and enemies, including two Chinese hikers lost on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, shirtless huntresses, and a deaf and mute goat-herder named Jesus.

On the surface, The Ornithologist presents an intriguing art-house concept. The cinematography is beautiful, indulging in the silences of the Portuguese rivers and forests, the calls of birds, and the beauty of the human form as part of nature. Birds figure largely into the story – Fernando is thrown off course by paying too much attention to a flying stork and not enough to where the river is taking him. Point of view shots present the perspectives of different birds as they look down on Fernando in his various guises and distresses and see him as he “really” is. The nature photography on display is nothing short of transcendental – I could have watched the life and times of the storks, hawks, and owls for hours.

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If the film has a theme, it is Fernando’s transformation from atheistic naturalism to sainthood via various experiences that highlight the connection between the spiritual and the natural world. Nature intertwines with the religious, such as when Fernando discovers derelict shrines overrun by nature, or repairs the wing of a dove that appears in his tent. Fernando is transformed by his experiences, removing himself ever more from the physical world into a realm where natural spirits reign, and ultimately arriving at his true self.

Yet, for all its intriguing images and play with theological concepts, The Ornithologist never becomes a coherent text. Some of this has to do with its nebulous treatment of the cinematic form – in places, it possesses the chaotic sensibilities of a Buñuel film, as displaced objects, images, and violent rituals override reason. At other times, it plays like a nature film, fascinated by the quiet movements of birds and the slosh of running water. But none of these elements coalesce into anything deliberate or meaningful. The film touches on so many different forms that it’s impossible to fully comprehend what the director might have been going for as a whole. Fernando’s journey meanders; each weird episode ends with another step off into the jungle. The conclusion, which might have brought some clarity into the proceedings, serves only to heighten the confused nature of the film’s cinematic and theological outlook.

It’s a mistake to demand that films must mean something, that the mysterious is not allowed, or that theological questions must be answered and some conclusion reached. But The Ornithologist lacks a sense of completeness and direction. It does not summon up the mysterious. For all its heady concepts and premises, for all the beauty of its cinematography, The Ornithologist fails to see itself. It is so distracted by swooping birds and swooping theologies that it doesn’t notice the currents carrying it to destruction.

Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @lhbizness)

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