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.
Though the movie is constructed as almost an allegory for the origin of the Catholic St. Anthony – invoked by said hikers and frequently referenced throughout – the events of The Ornithologist don’t seem to necessarily ascribe themselves to any particular events in the saint’s life, even though he is portrayed by Rodrigues himself. Rather, the pleasures of the film lie mostly in the moment, in the odd, pregnant interactions and, above all, the overpoweringly erotic way in which every character is filmed. Fernando, in particular, is virtually ogled, where even and especially a scene of him carefully freeing himself from bondage is sensually depicted.
There is a very concrete conception, tested and deconstructed as it might be through the narrative of the film, of Fernando as both viewpoint and object for the viewer. Something which feels like a sixth of the film is spent looking through his ever-present binoculars, and yet this perspective is reversed by The Ornithologist‘s gaze through the eyes of the birds he is looking at, complete with some odd distortions around the edges. Especially in the early scenes of relatively serene birdwatching and observations spoken into a tape recorder, there is an eager hungriness in his eyes that speaks to a certain survival instinct, which is only amplified by his meticulous preparation and his muscular physique. Though Hamy expresses the expected amount of disorientation and fear at his situations, it feels purposefully muffled and held behind a mostly opaque exterior, all the better to convey a narrative that is more felt than told.
And after all, this sense of feeling is exactly what Rodrigues aims to capture. The torrential rapids, the living yet still forest, the ache of knotted rope: all are acutely expressed precisely because they are so free of necessary context. In a film where the inability to communicate becomes key at certain moments – the hikers speak Chinese (which Fernando cannot understand) among themselves, a shepherd whom he has a fling with is deaf and mute – it feels only natural that the most important aspect is the tactile, that which can be touched, hated, or loved.