There are times during João Pedro Rodrigues’s newest film, The Ornithologist, wherein you can’t tell if it’s all a big sexy joke or if it’s an earnest, religious and intellectual inquiry into the boundaries of spiritual and physical adventure. There’s enough evidence in the film—which follows a strapping studier of birds on his journey to note black storks and the various surreal things that occur to him—to argue that it’s both.
Fernando (Paul Hamy), our bird man, is over the course of the film: pissed on, tossed about by river waters in his kayak, badgered by a presumed lover from back home via text, without medicine, has the eyes on his passport photo burnt through, has sex with a twink deaf and mute twink named Jesus, and is tied up St. Sebastian-style by two lost Chinese lesbians on a religious pilgrimage. Rodrigues easily integrates an aesthetic reminiscent of a nature documentary into scenarios that, like a modern Portuguese take on “The Aristocrats,” mount in their ludicrousness. Yet, the oddball adventures that color Fernando’s journey seem embedded logically within the film’s universe, and even better, within Rodrigues’s own screenplay. However strange it may be to watch a Satanic ritual occur on screen, the director has seemingly mapped out precisely how to transition from weird scene to weird scene, making The Ornithologist and effectively coherent fever dream.
The film’s more explicitly theologically textured aspects are mired in Catholic mythos, with Fernando’s path and experiences riffing on those of Saint Anthony of Padua. The significance of this has less to do with its definitively scriptural allusions and more perhaps for its broadly symbolic ideas: St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and while Fernando might be in search of black storks, a sense of loneliness bleeds into the film. Hamy has a gamely attitude throughout the film, but his movements—outwardly capable, especially in such outdoorsy contexts—still contain traces of melancholy. He ignores the texts from someone who cares about him, and he is in constant denial of the idea that this person (and perhaps on a macro scale, anyone) cares about him.
The prospect of a rescuer from the kayak incident that sets the film in motion does nothing to assuage this anxiety: the two wandering Chinese women who initially save Fernando’s life bind him in rope, and then consider castrating him in the name of St. James. Too, the encounter Fernando has with the sheep herder named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao) is marred by the wild suspicion that Fernando’s sweatshirt was stolen by the man. One gets the impression that with every shot Rodrigues positions through the binocular lens, and every reverse shot through the eyes of various aviary, Fernando looks for something in these creatures, something akin to the fulfillment or completion. Really, all he has is himself and the birds.
But back to the image of Paul Hamy bound up by the Chinese pilgrims: It’s striking in the way it channels the film’s sense of humor, eroticism and pathos all at once. Fernando is helpless, and does not know if he wants to be helped, and enjoys and hates this lack of autonomy. We see his erection through his briefs, and it’s the first time we’ve seen him expressly, manifestly want something in the film that exists beyond what he thinks “needs to be done,” inasmuch as what he says in the notes he takes on bird watching. He is aroused by defamation, and perhaps intrigued and attracted to loneliness. It would make sense, given that Rodrigues’s controversial masterpiece O Phantasma (2002) was also fixated on the contradictions of longing and desire within the framework of the most transgressive manifestations of sexuality (there’s an unsimulated blow job in a bathroom; also a skin tight suit and trash). Hamy has a beautiful body: at once muscular and rugged, but with the same kind of sensitivity he imbues his character. His face, kind of sad and pouty, almost doesn’t match his body; there’s not so much a disconnection or removal between the two, but a knowing ambivalence of the sweet boy and the hot man longing for something intangible, to believe and to be captured, to live and to die on the edge of some spiritual glory.
Rodrigues, too, can have fun. The Ornithologist is not stuck in the muddy waters of dissolution or morbidity. Rather, the director has these various episodes function both as chances in which Fernando’s desire and agency are tested, and jokes about those tests. When a ritual-goer unknowingly covers Fernando in urine, there’s first the grossness of the joke, and then there’s the reaction on Hamy’s face. He doesn’t move much, he barely tilts his head up. For whatever reason, Fernando momentarily feels a sense of connection through waste.
As Fernando continues to mimic and mirror the various apocryphally chronicled events of St. Anthony’s life, he finds control over his longing for both physical and spiritual desire. In that implication Rodrigues allows each episode to get successively and logically stranger—and more enrapturing. As Fernando walks down a busy road in the end of the film, literally transformed into Rodrigues (who may also be St. Anthony) and magically transported from the jungle, one can’t help but think of The Ornithologist as a hallucination brought on by heat stroke. In the best way possible.
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
Writers: João Pedro Rodrigues, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Starring: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, Chan Suan
Release Date: June 23, 2017
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.