Overview: After getting stranded in the wilderness following a kayaking accident, an ornithologist named Fernando experiences a series of bizarre, mystical encounters that lead to his religious awakening. Seeking Distributor; 2016; Not Rated; 117 minutes.
Sure, Why Not?: About thirty minutes into João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, I threw up my hands and stopped trying to make sense of what was going on. I decided that from there on out I would greet whatever happened with a resigned “sure, why not?” A duo of Chinese pilgrims seeking the shrine of Saint Anthony of Padua capture and hogtie the titular ornithologist Fernando in the woods? Sure, why not? He escapes only to stumble across a tribe of Dionysian pagans who ceremoniously decapitate a wild boar? Sure, why not? He encounters a child-like deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus with whom he skinny-dips in a river, makes love with on the riverbank, and ultimately stabs to death? Sure, why not? He gets shot in the chest by a trio of Latin-speaking topless horsewomen who declare him “Anthony” before riding off, leaving him mysteriously unharmed? He revives the dead twin brother of Jesus by blowing into his mouth? He gets his throat slit only for him to reappear on the side of the road leading into Padua wearing sackcloth? Sure, sure, and sure: why the hell not?
Crossed Signals: Few things frustrate and bore me more than art films that seek to be Art Films™, and The Ornithologist is easily the most impenetrable and obtuse film I’ve seen so far this year at the New York Film Festival. Supposedly, the film operates as some kind of allegory for the life and sainthood of the historical Saint Anthony; a kind of re-imagined queer hagiography. That’s all well and good; I admire many allegorical films. Both Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987) used allegory to stunning effect to tell stories about, respectively, Cold War paranoia and a Christ-like savior. But allegory, like satire, is a fickle mistress—you can’t commit to it only halfway. The Ornithologist occasionally forgets it’s an allegory and, when it does become allegorical, it frequently gets its signals crossed.
Watching Bird-watching: Allow me to give an example of how The Ornithologist only partially commits to its central allegory. For the first 15-20 minutes, we literally do nothing but watch Fernando watch birds. He spies on a family of black storks and swims next to them; he kayaks down a river and watches a family of eagles through his binoculars; he takes careful note of a vulture flying nearby. It’s only after this exhausting, stilted introduction that the story begins. What are we to make of these scenes? From my research, there are no birds connected to the histories and folk legends surrounding the Saint. They don’t establish anything about Fernando’s personality or character other than that he is an ornithologist, something the audience would have already known from the title. Two birds prominently appear afterwards: an owl and a white dove, both of which don’t appear in the first 15-20 minutes. So the only possible conclusion we can make about the opening 15-20 minutes is that it’s just dry, simple bird-watching. So why was it necessary to put it in the film in the first point?
Overall: Some of the allegories aren’t even applicable to the Saint Anthony story. When he’s tied up by the Chinese pilgrims, the scene is blocked and framed to evoke popular images of Saint Sebastian, not Saint Anthony. The list goes on. It’s a pretentious piece of film-making too confused to make any sense out of its metaphors. It fails on every level except as a sleep aid.