Sensation in film is, by definition, an event that is difficult to describe. It privileges the experience of watching, of holistically observing sight and sound work in tandem to produce something nearly indescribable. Such an concept is placed front and center in The Ornithologist, a remarkable, subtly shape-shifting film by Portugese director João Pedro Rodrigues. By turns raucous, menacing, gorgeous, and haunting, the movie is never less than throughly engrossing, moving through its surreal logic with a confidence and daring, the likes of which have been sorely missed from Seattle screens this year.
As might be expected, The Ornithologist follows the eponymous birdwatcher Fernando (Paul Hamy) as he explores a mysterious, possibly haunted forest after his kayak is destroyed by rapids. Through his perilous, somewhat meandering attempts to return to civilization, he encounters various denizens and transients, along with increasingly supernatural and surreal experiences. Impressively, this roster begins with a pair of lesbian Chinese Christian hikers, who first rescue him from the waters and then tie him up with rope and sadistic intentions, and only becomes stranger from there, including a motley cast of possible costumed cult members, bare-breasted hunters on horseback, and of course, many birds, some of which assume a strange symbolic importance.