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'The Ornithologist' - A Film That Soars With Originality

Strand Releasing

The Ornithologist is a bland title for a movie that is anything but. The film may start with a bird watcher, but by the time it ends, you’re looking at a modern telling of the story of St. Anthony of Padua, who died in 1231, and has become known as the patron saint of lost things. And, in fact, the character on screen finds a number of things he’d thought lost.

The movie opens on a blissful scene on a meandering river in the mountains of northeast Portugal. It’s not quite dawn, and in the gray light black storks are nesting. Soon, the ornithologist comes into view, swimming in the river. He then emerges, dresses and takes off in his kayak, carefully looking through his binoculars and recording his observations. The sounds are of the slow-moving water or bird calls. There’s no music and no speech, until the ornithologist, named Fernando and played by Paul Hamy makes a call on his cellphone, but has to quit because the reception is poor. He returns to the river, engrossed in his work to the degree that he fails to notice the stream picking up its pace as it descends into rapids, and Fernando winds up in the drink.

Bird life in the mountains is the last thing on the mind of this movie. Even without the imposing opening titles, it’s easy to catch on that all of this is metaphor. The place is a land of spiritual travels and evocative elements like getting immersed in the water, captured and tied up by young Chinese girls on a Christian pilgrimage, surrounded by wild young men in forest spirit costumes, and finally encountering a naked, mute and deaf young man herding goats.

So forget about bird watching and realize that you are in the midst of genuine Christian art. There’s a lot of supposedly religious art out in the world now that’s mostly bland happy songs or simple-minded, didactic guides to life. The Ornithologist is not that kind of religious art. It’s full of struggle and difficulty and spooky but potent images that demand patience and time to absorb.

Fernando doesn’t get the ease of a quick transition from uncomplicated sad to simplistic happy. He goes through a movie-long transformation of himself, because shedding one’s identity in favor of a new one doesn’t happen just because someone says it’s happened. The Ornithologist is a not a movie for people who believe in cheap magic.

Fernando loses his boat, his binoculars, his clothing, his contact with the outside world, and eventually with the entire material world itself. He’s been intimately connected to the world of flesh and materiality and desire. It’s a beautiful world and a world hard to let go of. The birds are fabulous; an eagle gliding around the river in a stunning silence does not make anyone, even Fernando, want to shed this world of plants and birds and water and magnificent rock formations in favor of any spiritual plane.

But he seems to have little choice. The world acts upon him in outlandish and improbable ways. He’s surrounded first by the grotesquely-costumed revelers howling throughout the night, jumping around. Fernando hides, but an unwitting reveler urinates on his head. Later, horsewomen, naked to the waist and armed with rifles surround him. Objects like skulls appear to him. He suffers; he’s confused and disoriented. He gives in to temptations. He shows great cruelty – all on the way to the profound change of self that he must endure.

The task for director João Pedro Rodrigues is to tell the story of a medieval saint in a contemporary situation without getting didactic or maudlin or just plain silly. If you want naked horsewomen riding in to your movie, you’d better know why and you’d better have the steely nerve to let the wildness seem genuine, and not pull your punches. Rodrigues seems to have that almost pitiless strength.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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