Temptation of Christ
THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016)
João Pedro Rodrigues’s THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016) begins as quiet and methodical as a solitary bird-surveying trip would be. We meet Fernando, the title character, entrenched in just that. He sets up camp and kayaks down a river, searching for birds through his binoculars. He is no doubt an expert at what he does, mentioning expeditions and bird populations past into his handheld tape recorder. These opening sequences, many of which could come straight from a nature documentary, lay the groundwork for a much different film than what comes next. Fernando expectedly becomes lost. A tale of man versus wilderness would fuel his drama in another film, but in this one, he seems particularly adept at surviving the wild — finding bird eggs to subsist on, along with fruit that could be a biblical allusion, like much in the film.
Fernando is a realist, and when faced with the increasingly confounding and surreal, holds his bearings. Two Chinese women, hiking on a catholic pilgrimage, run into him, and with their actions, we begin to anticipate the depths of the rabbit hole he has entered. Fernando encounters mysterious tableaus of people and animals in the forest, along with literal tableaus depicting biblical text, guarded behind grated windows along the pilgrimage trail.
At one point Fernando sees a few coy fish in muddy water. He begins a monologue, commending the fish on their abilities and their freedom, being the only animals that could survive the “great flood” without boarding Noah’s ark. He then asks the fish why they have chosen such murky waters to swim in, always moving forward without knowing what’s ahead. This mirrors both how we experience the film and Fernando’s predicament. With all of his skills and knowledge, he is without a map, and the forest itself seems set against him. The birds that he had so intently sought out now stare down at him, like some kind of panoptic surveillance.
Rodrigues’s singular vision is doled out in patient stretches that surprise in their ability to unsettle and intrigue. There are many shots of Fernando waking up, and watching the film can give you the same disorienting and sometimes exhilarating sensation of regaining your waking mind from a deep sleep. Erotic and religious images intermingle in unexpected ways. Dave Hickey, an art critic, once compared Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601) to Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicit photographs of gay men engaged in sadomasochistic acts in his X Portfolio (1978.) In one of the film’s most striking sequences, Rodrigues mines the same image of Christ, whose wound is being intimately touched by another man, in the same unexpectedly homo-erotic way that Hickey picked up on in that baroque painting.
Among the film’s surrealism, it seems too obvious to mention Buñuel, but in one of its scenes Rodrigues himself makes a cameo, and — maybe because of the film’s suggestion of the interchange of faces — the director looks much like a less bearded Claudio Brook in SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965.)
Pagan dancers, topless horseback riders with high power rifles, Yorick’s Skull — to expand on much of the imagery of Rodrigues’s would fail to communicate the transfixing way it grows and weaves into Fernando’s place of exile and the forward motion of his journey. In the series of events that occur, Fernando’s binoculars he used so much at the beginning of the film are replaced with a whistle around his neck. Fernando transforms from a spectator to a participant in the strange world that surrounds him, and we are lucky enough to witness his rebirth.
THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016) is distributed in the U.S. by Strand Releasing.