As Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist begins, we see shots purporting to be through the protagonist’s binoculars, instantly adding a sense of intensity and unpredictability to proceedings, for it closes our vision, zooming in and cutting out our periphery – which means we never know what’s around us. This sets the tone for an elusive, compelling drama with a narrative that stubbornly refuses to ever go the way you expected it to.
Paul Hamy plays Fernando, the titular ornithologist, who is on a mission to find black storks, only to be caught up in a rapid, his kayak capsizing and he’s swept away. When he is awoken, by two Chinese tourists, from this point on he embarks on a surreal, almost-magical path of self-discovery as he vies for a route back home. Along the way he makes a variety of friends, from a young shepherd (Xelo Cagiao) to a trio of topless women on horseback. Everything seems to be happening for a reason, he just needs to figure out what it may be.
There’s an indelible, uneasy tone to this piece, dictated by the part-excruciating, part-irresistible score, which sounds similar to the The Velvet Underground’s The Black Angel Death Song. It works well for it contradicts the gloriously serenity of the landscape, and injects a suspense that the film otherwise shouldn’t need. To further enhance the protagonist’s sense of isolation and disorientation, some of the characters he meets along this voyage are foreign, and so they must communicate and converse with one another in their second languages, making him unable, at times, to get his point across just as he would have liked.
This doesn’t detract from the enchantment of the piece either, as a narrative that feels almost biblical in its execution. Through this it gives Rodrigues a licence of sorts to be overtly absurd, and he does so in a knowing, affectionate fashion. Though the narrative would allude otherwise, there is a distinct lightness about this tale, thriving in overstatement and unpredictability, with a wonderful sense of, ‘whatever is he going to get up to next?’ bubbling under the surface at all times.
The lack of linearity and palpable narrative structure could alienate some viewers, but there’s a mystic wonderment to the way this tale has been depicted, and though less hypnotic, there are shades of Embrace of the Serpent, comparable perhaps in terms of the director’s vision. So as for the ornithologist himself, well, for a job that could be perceived as being somewhat dull, this feature goes some way in proving otherwise, as Fernando has a right old time of it – and he only went out to look for some birds.
The Ornithologist is released on October 6th.