THE ORNITHOLOGIST/ O ORNITOLOGO. Portugal, 2016, 117 minutes, Colour.
Paul Hamy,Joao Pedro Rodriguez, Han Wen, Chan Suan and, Juliane Elting.
Directed by Joao Pedro Rodriguez.
While initially an audience might believe they are coming to see a nice film about a bird watcher, and there are some pleasant scenes of Fernando (Paul Hamy) on the river, his binoculars, looking at some beautiful birds, nesting, eggs…, it might be prudent to advise that this is not a straightforward narrative film. It is something of an allegory, it has touches of the mystical, and, for many audiences, maybe quite too mysterious.
There is an opening quotation from Saint Anthony of Lisbon, better known to us all as Saint Anthony of Padua, originally a Portuguese man named Fernando who became a Franciscan, and who has devout legends about him as being the patron of things which are lost as well as the story of his preaching to the birds. The opening quotation has references to nature, echoes of the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi, as well as a sense of spirits in the forests.
Something of this needs to be kept in mind. The director, Joao Pedro Rodriguez, has made a short film about celebrating the feast of Saint Anthony. And it can be noted that, by the end of the film, the director himself appears as an actor, taking over from Paul Hamy as the ornithologist, and this time called Anthony rather than Fernando as he and another character walk, like pilgrims, into the actual city of Padua.
Another note which will help audiences understand the approach of Rodriguez is that he is a gay man and there are some significant gay perspectives throughout the film.
When Fernando is caught in the rapids and his kayak is split, he lies in the water but has not drowned. Now begin some of the mysteries. He is rescued by two young Chinese women, who say that they are on their way to Compostella, walking the Camino. They are rather off-track, in forests in the north of Portugal where it meets Spain. While they are nervous, and say their prayers, and feed Fernando, they then tie him up, roped upright in his underwear resembling the image of Jesus on the cross.
But there are more encounters in Fernando’s Odyssey, most significantly a mute and deaf young man who write his name on the sand, Jesus. Some audiences may balk at what follows but there is a sexual interlude between Fernando and the young man, (perhaps a gay suggestion of the intimacy between St Anthony and Jesus himself), but there are some violent consequences with Jesus’ side pierced by a knife and blood flowing out.
In the forests there are some strange men, masks and elaborate costumes, shouting and dancing – preparing for a fiesta and one of them, Thomas, turns out to be the twin brother of Jesus. He also has a knife wound in his side (and it was Thomas who wanted to put his finger in Jesus’ side – as Fernando puts his finger in Thomas’s side).
Keeping the mythical tone, Fernando is accosted by three bare-breasted Amazons who actually speak to him in Latin. They let him go.
Birds are present throughout the film, images, bird sounds – and, significantly in a tableau at the end, there is a white dove (which some audiences researching the Catholic symbolism missed), the Holy Spirit in the forest. The quote from Saint Anthony at the opening of the film did indicate that there were spirits in the forest.
And, finally, Thomas and the now Anthony walking into Padua – and the Chinese girls passing by, waving from the other side of the road.
Plenty to puzzle over for those who wish to pursue the allegory.
Sharmill Films. Released November 16th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.