João Pedro Rodrigues (2016)
The title character is Fernando (Paul Hamy), travelling solo in a remote part of northern Portugal. On the lookout for (rare?) black storks, he catches sight of the birds through binoculars. Transfixed, he pays no attention to the currents of the lake on which he’s kayaking. Fernando is swept away by rapids and his boat capsizes. Two young Chinese women, Christian pilgrims journeying on foot to Santiago de Compostela who’ve lost their way in the dense forest that surrounds the lake, discover Fernando’s unconscious body. They revive him and the three have an evening meal together. Fernando comments on the peculiar taste of the tea that Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan) give him to drink. The taste is presumably down to the soporific the beverage contains. Fernando wakes next morning to find himself stripped and bound with ropes to a tree. The Chinese women refuse to release him. Late that evening, Fernando manages to free himself, gather his clothes and backpack, and escape into the forest, unseen and unheard by the two women. (Inside their tent, they discuss plans for castrating Fernando the next day.) So begins the hero’s journey through a selva oscura – a terrain, in other words, both physical and spiritual.
In the early stages of The Ornithologist, Fernando receives a succession of anxious texts from ‘Sergio’, urging him to make contact and to remember to take his tablets. Who Sergio is – a life partner, friend or relative – isn’t made clear but Fernando’s links with, and identity in, the world he left to start his bird-watching expedition, successively disappear. He finds that the eyes have been blacked out in the photograph on his identity card and that his fingerprint has been removed from it. The Chinese women steal his map of the area. The phone signal there is unreliable at best. In time (or perhaps out of it), Fernando disposes of his mobile, the recording device he uses for his ornithological diary and his medication. He comes across, in sequence, a mob of strangely masked hoodlums, who celebrate ecstatically their slaying of a wild boar; Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), a mute goatherd with whom he enjoys a brief sexual idyll before they argue and Jesus is accidentally stabbed to death; a stretch of forest populated by models of animals both indigenous and exotic; a white dove which seems to have a broken wing then to recover; a human skull; and a trio of bare-breasted deer huntresses (Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcão and Isabelle Puntel), whose leader insists that the ornithologist’s name is not Fernando but Anthony.
The writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues (João Rui Guerra da Mata shares the screenplay credit) uses words of St Anthony of Lisbon as an epigraph to the film: ‘Whoever approaches the spirit will feel its warmth, hence the heart will be lifted up to new heights’. Anthony of Lisbon is better known as Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost things; he was born Fernando Martins in Lisbon in 1195. In the episode featuring the dionysiac boar-killers, one figure – his fantastically coloured costume suggesting plumage – sat apart from the rest. In the climax to The Ornithologist, the protagonist encounters this figure at close quarters. He turns out to be Tomé, twin of the slain Jesus, and demands to know why his brother died at the hands of Fernando/Anthony. The latter’s shifting identity is reflected in the appearance at this point of João Pedro Rodrigues, whose face alternates with Paul Hamy’s, as the ornithologist’s throat is cut with the knife that belonged to Jesus. The blood from the wound reddens the leaves of the trees overhead and the full moon above. Rodrigues then cuts to a shot of a dead magpie lying on concrete and the sound of traffic – the first heard throughout the film. Anthony (ie Rodrigues) and Tomé, still in his coat of many colours, walk beside the main road taking them into Padua. The two Chinese girls appear, walking on the opposite side of the road and in the opposite direction. When they call out ‘Fernando’, Anthony gives them the sign of the cross and they reciprocate. Anthony and Tomé hold hands and disappear into the distance.
Anthony’s metaphysical reflections to Tomé in the forest include:
‘There are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand. They come to pass and we believe in them. The fire of the Spirit is a mystery we will never understand but we must let it burn freely within us.’
The closing shots and credits are accompanied by a tentatively upbeat love song whose lyrics begin with:
‘You are free, I am free
And there’s a night to spend
So why not spend it together?
Why not take part in the adventure of our senses?’
In spite of their different registers, both sets of words are predictably banal. But it’s the gay happy ending that hints at the film’s more interesting and distinctive qualities.
With his political tunnel vision and voice-in-the-wilderness complex, Armond White a reliably infuriating critic yet his piece on The Ornithologist is worth reading. This gay conservative reviews for Out as well as National Review: on this occasion, his feeling for and knowledge of queer cinema gets the better of his reactionary side (although that side isn’t completely absent). White seems to write more honestly than usual, safe in the knowledge that a film like this – foreign language, largely unknown actors – isn’t designed to make a splash in the mainstream press, let alone be widely seen. (The Ornithologist has been shown at festivals and beyond since late 2016 but still has only fifty reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.) João Pedro Rodrigues, now fifty-one, has been making feature films since 2000. I don’t know his work but am prepared to believe White when, writing in an unusually sympathetic tone, he says that Rodrigues ‘always struggles with his gayness, usually in films filled with macabre, mysterious events’; and to agree with White’s description of The Ornithologist as a ‘strange, mesmerizing study of the transformation of gay consciousness’. In contrast, Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian – the kind of reviewer and newspaper anathema to White – sounds as if, rather than engaging with the film, he’s merely saying what he thinks he ought to say. Bradshaw describes The Ornithologist as a ‘dreamily erotic, playfully baffling and beautifully shot movie … a secular meditation on faith and acceptance’.
As will be obvious from much of the above, Rodrigues’s film is replete with religious imagery and symbolism. The hagiographic aspect extends beyond St Anthony: as Armond White notes, the bound Fernando evokes St Sebastian. The Chinese girls, before they turn on Fernando, express fears that spirits are at work in the forest; the rationalist Fernando assures them there’s no such thing as spirits or the devil or God but is compelled by his experiences to think again. When Fernando/Anthony finds him, Tomé bears the fatal injury of his dead twin; in a twist on doubting Thomas feeling Christ’s wounds, Anthony inserts his fingers into Tomé (Thomas)’s. This also echoes a moment involving Fei and Ling before they meet Fernando: one of the women cuts her knee; the other feels the wound and tastes the blood.
The religious references don’t, as such, amount to more than a suggestive narrative design. For most of its running time (just under two hours) The Ornithologist is visually compelling but its into-the-wild themes seem hackneyed and the pace is leisurely, to say the least. You admire the landscapes – their coloration, the flow and force of water – that Rodrigues and his cinematographer Rui Poças create; you’re always aware there’s plenty of opportunity to admire them because not much else is going on in many of the images. The queer elements in the material create a very different effect. Although the texts from Sergio imply that Fernando is gay, his sexual orientation isn’t clear until he meets Jesus. From this point on, it feels central. The brief finale on the road into Padua may be a simple affirmation of gay togetherness but the lengthy, pretentious dark night of the soul that’s preceded it suggests the protagonist’s self-realisation is hard won. The ending makes you reflect on what you’ve watched and see things you noticed in a different light – the fear-of-women motif (the Chinese misandrists, the huntresses on horseback), the embattled masculinity and melancholy dignity of Paul Hamy’s Fernando. (It makes emotional sense that Hamy is eventually physically eliminated.) If Armond White’s summary of João Pedro Rodrigues’s film-making sensibility is correct, this interpretation makes The Ornithologist sound ridiculously self-dramatising and hyperbolic. It is those things but it’s finally moving too.
19 February 2018
 One of White’s latest gems is praising Winston Churchill’s tube train dialogue as the highlight of Darkest Hour: ‘[Joe] Wright’s canniest moment, in which the new, harried prime minister escapes Parliament and sneaks into the Underground, reveals Brexit-era populism as the film’s true theme. Our jaded, post-Obama media have poisoned the plausibility of this gesture, yet Darkest Hour initiates a genuine, modern approach to political heroism and the Western sagacity that is out of favor. Wright imagines Churchill in actual conversation with “the people” rather than lecturing them that “that’s not who we are!” ’