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With: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcão, Isabelle Puntel
Written by: João Pedro Rodrigues, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
Directed by: João Pedro Rodrigues
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: In Portuguese, English, Mandarin, with English subtitles
Running Time: 117
Date: 07/07/2017

The Ornithologist (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma, Two Drifters, To Die Like a Man) is usually puzzling, and polarizing. I tend to like his films, but he tends to alienate many critics. He's openly gay but doesn't show gay themes in a soft or coddling way. He can be absurd and surreal, but not necessarily at the same time. His new The Ornithologist feels like it tiptoes around territory previously explored by David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and it had me for most of its running time, but as it reaches the final ten or so minutes, it more or less dives off a cliff. It lost me.

Fernando (Paul Hamy) is the title ornithologist, seeking black storks along a remote river in northern Portugal. Everything seems to go fine for a while. He camps out, swims, and then takes his kayak down the river. But while looking through his binoculars, he loses track of where he is and crashes down some rapids. When he comes to, he is found by two Chinese Christians. They help him, but then tie him up to force him to help them find their way. He escapes and finds his broken canoe used as part of a bizarre ritual. He sees a band of wild, unruly revelers in colorful costumes, meets a deaf-and-dumb goatherd, and three topless female hunters on horseback.

Through all this, he sometimes seems to want to find his bottle of pills (medicine for some unspoken malady) and to go back to civilization (he gets texts from a boyfriend). Other times, he seems to want to stay in the woods, performing little rituals to cleanse himself of his identity. He seems to bond with a mysterious white bird, but then tries to get rid of the bird at other times. The film is not without its shock value. We get urination, sex, and murder, and other things before arriving at the weird conclusion, involving doppelgangers, and... frankly, I'm not really sure.

I'm not one for needing to know what everything means in movies and how it all works out. I'm usually comfortable living in a little mystery, but The Ornithologist takes too sharp of a turn at the last second, leaving me with more of a "huh?" than an "ah." Up to that point, however, I was impressed and enthralled by Rodrigues's weird, surreal journey into the woods. The film has a remarkable patience and beauty, taking the time to live in its offbeat, unsettling moments. Its sense of color and space and movement — and especially its use of sound and quiet — is admirable. It makes me wish that Rodrigues could somehow find the missing element, that little connector, that might rank him in the company of the filmmakers that inspire him.

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