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The Ornithologist – Young Critics Workshop

The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo) (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2016)


…for when you stare into the Abyss, the Abyss also stares into you, dixit Nietzsche. So what does an ornithologist become when he stares at birds too long? A catholic saint, of course. Hear me out.

In his hunt for a black stork Fernando, our protagonist and titular ornithologist, forces his audience to look through the lenses of his binoculars at the nature surrounding him, unaware of the fact that nature is indeed staring back at him when the camera takes on the point of view of the birds circling above him. This game of glancing and seduction immediately shows us the great theme of what we’re about to see, man’s place in nature in a way only cinema could; by showing us man through the eyes of nature itself.

What seems to begin as just another man-lost-in-nature-adventure takes a completely different turn when Fernando loses control over his kayak and thus sets in motion a series of events that are as bonkers as they are filled with symbolical meaning. So what on the surface looks a lot like a jumbled mess of one tableau after another becomes meaningful if we, as an audience, suspend not only our disbelief but more importantly also our sense of rationality and the logic based on it.

What we have on our hands here, ladies and gentleman, is (thank God) not a psychological character study but an ambitious and sincere attempt at re-evaluating some of the myths we have forgotten along the way we like to call history. As Godard showed us in the prologue of Hélas pour moi (1993), man has forgotten most of the rites and rituals (or at least the meaning we had bestowed on them) that used to connect us to a nature of which we (after the original sin) could no longer be part. The only thing we have left are the stories about those rituals but they are to be understood in a language that nobody dares to speak anymore.

If we follow Fernando on his journey and share his audacity to give up our identities (by symbolically throwing away the pills that should keep us sane) in order to surrender to nature and perhaps open a door back into her arms (by even more symbolically eating apples, the forbidden fruit, in one of the many mirror-images this film has to offer), then and only then there might be a possibility to find ourselves again. Because we have to keep in mind that Saint Anthony, on whose life this film was loosely based, is the patron saint of lost things.

In the most talked about encounter along his journey Fernando meets a deaf-dumb goatherd that reveals himself to be Jesus (by writing in the sand), and of course they lie with each other as with a woman, but the beauty of this scene is the completely understated way in which it is filmed. Even though this one-afternoon-stand is nothing more than the externalization of Fernando’s desire for God, for man, (as sex probably always is) we are shown a beautiful, naturalistic scene wherein the camera caresses these two bodies in the same way it has shown us nature because the difference between the human body and nature will slowly start to vanish. And all though it might seem blasphemous, there actually exists a long mystic tradition of (gay) sexual consummation with Jesus leading all the way back to that other great Iberian saint San Juan de la Cruz and his poem Dark Night of the Soul and even further back into time to Saint Sebastian (who is also referenced visually in a bondage scene) who we saw earlier as the protagonist of Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976), a film The Ornithologist shares a lot of DNA with.

These sex and bondage scenes are emblematic because they allow us only a glance at what is actually happening underneath the surface. The director and his DOP have succeeded in delivering beautiful images that seduce the audience, without any form of (psychological) explanation, to open themselves up and throw themselves unto the screen. He reminds me of Tarkovsky, particularly his film Stalker (1979) which also chronicles a Dantesque descent into the heart of nature’s darkness without boring it’s public with too much exposition. And both Stalker and The Ornithologist reference The Wizard of Oz (1939), the template for all movies that are concerned with self-discovery through a journey that travels inwards, but fortunately we can nowadays renounce this whole ‘it-was-just-a-dream’-bullshit that essentially consists of nothing more than a misconception of what dreams are and the power they exercise over us. But I digress, let’s ease on down the road again.

So even though the film doesn’t always succeed in delivering us the most singular images or using the least obtuse iconography, João Pedro Rodrigues triumphs for the sheer ambition of his vision and the way it rigorously demands its audience to lose itself much in the same way its protagonist does, in the idle hope of rediscovering a language we lost once upon a time.