Review: THE ORNITHOLOGIST, A Wildly Imaginative, Absurdist Queer Cinema
Portuguese helmer Jõao Pedro Rodriguez's The Ornithologist strongly reminds me of irreverent, freewheeling cinema of Weerasethakul and Gomes. It tells a gay ornithologist's long and winding journey to self-discovery/sainthood in a series of misadventures while kayaking/hiking through the picturesque wilderness of Northern Portugal.
Fernando (Paul Hamy, Suzanne, Parisienne) is seen kayaking, observing rare birds through his trusty binoculars and communicating occasionally with his boyfriend through his cell phone. But the reception is spotty in the wilds. As he observes, there is a constant reminder that he is being observed too from the sky, the top of the cliff or trees, that this is not a one-way affair.
After his kayak hits the rapids and capsizes, he is revived by two chatty Chinese female hikers who are on a pilgrimage on foot to Santiago de Compostela, known as the St. James Trail. They are devout Christians who seem a little odd despite their cheerful, innocent exterior.
There are a group of men in masks performing strange rituals in the woods at night and the girls asks Fernando to protect them and accompany them to find the way back to the trail. But before Fernando realizes, these two 'crazy Chinese bitches' tie him up at night in St. Sebastian style to a tree and talk about castrating him in Chinese. After torturous couple of days tied up in one position, he escapes at night and finds himself lost in the woods without a map and without any clothes.
Fernando then runs into a baby-faced deaf mute goat herder named Jesus, sucking on a goat’s teat. After skinny-dipping together, they have sex but one thing leads to another through miscommunication, things escalate and he ends up putting a knife in Jesus's chest.
By the time he gets his hoodie back and a having a knotted rope for a belt, Fernando slowly becomes looking more like a Jesuit priest. First with a white dove then encountering a lot of other animals (both alive and stuffed), and shedding his earthly attachment - phone, his pills. He is becoming one with his surroundings.
He then gets hunted by topless Amazonian women warriors on a horseback, and meets back up with Jesus, or his twin brother who turns out to be a masked ritual performing man who had urinated on him before.
The increasing absurdity, punctuated by beautiful images of nature, this leisurely paced film is an intoxicating mix of madcap imagination and sensory cinematic experience that is truly hard to forget. It would make a great threesome with Christophe Honoré's Metamorphoses and Alain Giuradie's Staying Vertical as examples of recent playful, eccentric and adventurous queer cinema at its best.
The Ornithologist opens 6/23 at IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center. For other screenings, please visit Strand Releasing website.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com