Like 2009’s drag queen valentine To Die like a Man, The Ornithologist is fevered moviemaking of the first order. João Pedro Rodrigues’ story about the eponymous character’s odyssey in a Portuguese forest mimics the wanderings of St. Anthony of Padua, but you don’t have to know it (or Gustave Flaubert’s equally addled narrative) to recognize that this is fissile material guided by expert hands. The images, courtesy of Rui Poças, have a cold, clear, bracing crispness, like a mountain stream. Tonally, sequences vacillate between uneasy peace and sudden eruptions into violence or passion; imagine Rodrigues directing what happens next in a series of Henri Rousseau canvases in which jungle creatures devour each other yet from which the viewer feels a distance because the events happen in long shot. Amazons and Thomas, Jesus’ brother, make appearances. When it ends, you know you’ve seen something.
Opening the film with a twenty-minute nature sequence in which Fernando (Paul Hamy) studies mallards, herons, and ducks in an idyllic marsh has a lulling effect that Rodrigues will later subvert. A phone call to a concerned relative ends on a disquieting note – he has to take his pills, he’s reminded. While in his canoe he drifts toward some rapids. A pair of young Chinese women, on their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, revive him. In the film’s only violation of its rigorous commitment ot Fernando’s point of view, a montage of social media photos chronicle their travels. But their intentions aren’t so nice. After they insist he sleep outside their tent (“We good girls!”), he awakens tied to a tree, nude. In a grueling sequence, he frees himself, creeps up to their tent, and overhears their chatter. “Tomorrow, we’ll castrate him!” one says, rather too eagerly. Stumbling through the forest, he chances upon tengu, Japanese forest spirits, chanting around a blazing fire, in multicolored plumage that looks like dyed pillow stuffing; the women had warned him they haunted the forest. Eventually he finds a freshwater beach and a deaf mute shepherd, giddily sucking off one of his goats.
Enough synopsis. A large part of The Ornithologist‘s charm is kicking back and letting the movie perambulate as determinedly as its protagonist. Never aimlessly, though. Beyond the prurience is Rodrigues’ fascination with a man in the wild; most of the film is dialogue-free, given to Fernando struggling up cliffs, discovering abandoned houses, tending to wounded doves. Like the best of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The Ornithologist follows a recessive but alert character through a wilderness in which a hundred pairs of eyes watch from lush vegetation. Séverine Ballon’s score – a skronk-drenched symphony of saxophones that clicks and whirrs like aphids and crickets – is an essential element. So are the forest’s avian inhabitants, whom Fernando understands so well. The image that has lingered is one of the film’s simplest: a bird with bright plumage regarding a bound Fernando with bemusement. “There are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand,” Fernando tells Thomas at the conclusion. As absurd as The Ornithologist often is, it illustrates the absurd and the plausible are not poles so much as dialectical.