Monthly Archives: February 2018

  • The Ornithologist

    O Ornitólogo

    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[1] 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

    [1] 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!” ’   

  • It Rains on Our Love

    Det regnar på vår kärlek

    Ingmar Bergman (1946)

    At first, the title is literal.  The lovers David (Birger Malmsten) and Maggi (Barbro Kollberg) repeatedly dodge downpours or get drenched.  As the film goes on, the couple struggle against metaphorical adverse weather – a combination of misfortune and, especially, the rules and prejudices of a bourgeois, bureaucratic society.   David has recently been released from prison.  Maggi wanted to be an actress but has got herself pregnant, by whom she’s not sure, and plans to start a new life in a provincial town.   She and David first bump into each other at a train station in Stockholm.  They’re soon sharing a railway carriage, then a Salvation Army hostel room for the night, then taking shelter from torrential rain in a cottage that becomes a key location in the story.  The film is introduced by a pleasant-faced man of around sixty (Gösta Cederlund), who emerges from beneath a large black umbrella.  He says he realises we want to know what he’s doing in the film and who he is.  He’s about to identify himself but doesn’t want to hold up proceedings:  ‘Here comes one of the main characters’, he says, as Maggi enters the frame and he disappears.  By the end of It Rains on Our Love, the audience still doesn’t know the man’s name but we recognise him as a force for good.  He acts as defence counsel, in the story’s dramatic climax, when David stands trial for assaulting Mr Purman (Gunnar Björnstrand), the pettifogging official who attempts to evict the couple from their cottage.  After the trial, which ends in acquittal, the couple meet the mystery man again as they set out on the road to a fresh start.  He warns that rain’s on the way and, before he bicycles away, offers his umbrella, which they gratefully accept.  David and Maggi wonder who the man was.  ‘Maybe an angel?’ suggests Maggi.

    Her remark elicits a little laugh from David that seems to say, ‘What a daft idea’.  You can almost hear the echo of an identical laugh from Ingmar Bergman:  ‘I know – but I couldn’t think of a better one for now’.  Like its predecessor Crisis, this film, his second feature, is not an original screenplay:  Bergman and Herbert Grevenius adapted a stage play, Bra Mennesker (Good People), by the Norwegian Oskar Braaten.  Crisis and It Rains on Our Love were released in Sweden only a few months apart but the later film is more stylistically ambitious – and less satisfying, from the self-conscious introduction onwards.  (Bergman also occasionally inserts title cards that comment archly on the action.)  The film is at pains to celebrate free spirits.  As well as the main couple, there’s an elderly widow (Julia Cæsar), hatchet-faced and stentorian, but, as she confirms at the trial, honest and open-minded.  There’s a mongrel that attaches itself early on to Maggi and David and stays with them to the end – it’s appealing, even though, hanging around the ex-con and the fallen woman, it serves a symbolic give-a-dog-a-bad-name purpose.  There are, alas, a pair of mischief-making comedy pedlars (Sture Ericson and Ulf Johansson), who keep turning up.  The one who does bits of annoying business with balloons (Johansson) puts you on the side of the film’s conformist forces:  they should lock him up and throw away the key.

    The umbrella man has a malign counterpart in Håkansson (Ludde Gentzel), who signs his cottage over to David, knowing full well that the land on which it stands has been acquired by the local authorities for development.  Bergman tries to integrate the romantic, whimsical side of the story with straight-faced political comment but the latter aspect lacks conviction in more ways than one.  Although she’s not charged with a crime, Maggi, as well as David, has to answer for her past conduct at the trial, under harsh questioning from the hugely horrible prosecutor (Benkt-Åke Benktsson).  But since the judge (Erik Rosén) eventually acquits them both – even though David did bop Purman – it seems the powers-that-be aren’t as outrageously unfair as all that.

    The two leads are likeable, though they lack the presence of the leading lights of the Bergman repertory company that emerged in the years ahead.  Barbro Kollberg, who didn’t become part of that company, has somehow old-fashioned, almost silent-movie looks.  Her most striking moment – which is also one of the few moments that registers as authentic Bergman – comes when Maggi loses her baby:  she asks, in an anguished but hollow tone, where what was alive inside her has gone.  Birger Malmsten, who made several more films with the director (the last was Face to Face, almost thirty years later), is physically and emotionally fluid.  In terms of the cast, however, It Rains on Our Love is remarkable chiefly for the debut in a Bergman-directed film of Gunnar Björnstrand.  Even in his short appearance as Mr Purman, quivering first with smug rectitude, then with pusillanimity, Björnstrand just about steals the show.

    17 February 2018

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