TIFF Review: ‘The Ornithologist’

TIFF 2016

4 mins read

The Ornithologist
Dir. João Pedro Rodrigues, Writ. João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra de Mata
Starring: Paul Harny, Xelo Cagiao
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)


An ornithologist observes some birds in gorgeous northern Portugal. Distracted, his kayak gets pulled downstream and he flips over, presumably drowned. Two Chinese girls, hopelessly off track from El Camino, find and resuscitate him, then tie him up and threaten to castrate him. He escapes, wonders for a moment where his pills are, tries and fails to call his boyfriend. Then he stumbles upon a hellish bacchanal of feathered dancers speaking in the Northern Portuguese dialect Mirandese that culminates in the slaughter of a boar, whose face one cuts off and wears as a mask. The ornithologist falls asleep, wakes up alone, and wanders off again, finding a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus, who he fucks and then kills. He finds his way to a ghost town rife with religious icons, then wanders into a clearing where he comes across three topless women on horseback, one of whom shoots him with an arrow. He’s fine, though, and gets up, only to have been transformed into Saint Anthony. He wanders into a forest, meets Jesus’ twin brother, dressed in the feathered costume from the bacchanal, and they prance back into civilization—Padua, where Saint Anthony, died—waving to the Chinese girls along the way.

To somebody unfamiliar with the life and exploits of Saint Anthony (guilty), The Ornithologist is just one damn thing after another—mutating from something that looks, for the first ten minutes, like it’s going to be a Stranger By The Lake style homoerotic thriller (the film is replete with ponderous shots of the photogenic lead against a forested background, set to tense music) to a Jodorowsky-esque psycho religious quest. Even the slightest bit of background on the saint’s life and legacy would have been helpful for most viewers of this film. A Google search reveals that Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost items, illuminating both the titular ornithologist’s wanderings and his oft-mentioned lost pills. Saint Anthony is reputed to have spoken and understood every language, explaining the film’s polyglot nature—Portuguese, Mandarin, English, Latin, and Mirandese are all spoken, with no apparent lapses in communication.

I’m sure a well-educated Catholic would find much of significance in the film; the rest of us will have to settle for the film’s praiseworthy picaresque and picturesque pleasures. One damn thing after another works if all the scenes work—and they do. Even after you figure out that the film is going to be a surreal picaresque, most of the twists are still genuinely surprising building to encounters that are, by the end, delightfully camp. In TIFF terms, if it weren’t for the film’s sophisticated symbolism and references, The Ornithologist would almost be a better fit for Midnight Madness than Wavelengths. As it is, the film is sure to be rewarding to people who know more than I about Saint Anthony, and to anybody who wants to spend two hours on a bizarre journey with beautiful scenery.

Please visit tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.

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