Imagine the nightmarish horror The Blair Witch Project filtered through the surrealist lens of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and you’ve likely imagined The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo), a strange religious parable that is far closer to the stuff of nightmares than anything remotely holy. Coming from the mind of acclaimed Portuguese writer/director João Pedro Rodrigues, the end result is dense with religious mythology, and a wealth of alternate explanations as to the weird going’s on. It may leave you baffled – but it won’t leave you bored, and repeat viewings are only likely to make the film even richer.
Paul Hamy stars as Fernando, an ornithologist studying black storks in a secluded Portuguese nature reserve. Whilst on the river, he suddenly drifts away by quickening streams, knocked unconscious and awoken by two Chinese tourists in an unfamiliar area. He has no signal to text his boyfriend and warn him of his whereabouts, with the two Chinese women suddenly taking him captive – tying him up to the trees, claiming that the forest is cursed by a religious spirit, eventually taking his map and leaving him to navigate this unfamiliar terrain by himself. Needless to say, things very quicker get weirder from here.
Director João Pedro Rodrigues has written the film to be a parable of the story of Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. As far as religious allegories go, this is one of the most gleefully insane to have ever been committed to screen – it frequently feels like an abstract work of horror, as Fernando struggles to find his way out of the seemingly never ending haunted forest, increasingly antagonising nature and bumping in to sinister, cultish characters. Rodrigues has previously made several acclaimed (and largely controversial) LGBT films, but none have quite pushed the boundaries as far as this one. It’s a film of such impenetrable strangeness, that a romantic encounter with a deaf/mute boy, who is introduced pleasuring a goat (yes, really), registers as one of the more digestible plot points.
This sequence, set on a riverfront area against an impressive backdrop, calls to mind 2013 French thriller Stranger by the Lake, which took place at a picturesque cruising spot. Here, the secluded setting is equally the location for some nightmarish occurrences, although these are of the occult, inexplicable variety – even when they initially prove straightforward, future plot developments soon render them more open to interpretation than initially assumed. Those who prefer their horror to rely on familiar tropes may prove frustrated by the oddball nature of this film. Personally, I was left enthralled from the slow burning start, to the sheer WTF ending.
As Fernando navigates his way across this borderline satanic landscape, we are frequently shown animals disapproving of his presence – could this be a sly critique on ornithologists ruining nature by exploring it, rather than leaving it be? I was frequently reminded of director Lars Von Trier’s “torture porn” film Antichrist, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character becomes convinced that “nature is Satan’s church”. With all the satanic cults and evil animals lurking under this backdrop, this (admittedly very silly) ideology could easily apply to this film too.
Of course, there is also the interpretation that these surreal happenings are a mere result of Fernando’s medication being stolen – which, up until the nakedly inexplicable climax, is a likely concession to audience members who prefer their horror to be easily digestible on a narrative level. The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo) is a film I can’t stop thinking about, a work of innovative surrealism that may invite comparison with other films, but stands apart as a distinctive, genre defying work in its own right.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Strand Releasing