Subversive pilgrimage in the shoes of St Anthony

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The Ornithologist (MA). Director: João Pedro Rodrigues. Starring: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, Chan Suan. 118 minutes

Paul Hamy in The OrnithologistPortuguese provocateur Joao Pedro Rodrigues' latest film opens with a quote from St Anthony of Padua: 'Whoever approached the Spirit will feel its warmth, hence his heart will be lifted up to new heights.'

It's more than an obligatory epitaph; the film's titular bird-watching hero (Hamy) is named Fernando, which is the birth name of the venerated Anthony. To know as much provides one key to unlocking the meaning of this contemplative but infuriatingly opaque film; others will no doubt depend upon whatever work the viewer is willing to bring to bear in order to decipher its manifold symbolic digressions.

Fernando is explicitly an avatar for the 13th century saint. Early in the film he is seen encamped on the bank of a river in the remote Portuguese wilderness, clad in a brown hoodie that emulates the brown robes of the Franciscan order of which Anthony was a member.

The act of bird-watching itself (one long, captivating stretch of the first act is concerned with Fernando drifting about a river canyon in his kayak, watching rare and endangered birds through his binoculars) evokes Anthony's association with St Francis of Assisi, the order's founder (and the present Pope's namesake), and his 'sermon to birds'.

So captivated is he by the flight of one particular bird that Fernando fails to note his descent into violent river rapids. The wreck of his kayak marks time with the passage through life of Anthony, whose ship was once blown off course en route from Morocco to Portugal.

To this point the film has been largely naturalistic, threaded with a sense of the numinous, captured mainly in cinematographer (and regular Rodrigues collaborator) Rui Poças' glorious work photographing the vast beauty of the physical environment, and the seemingly self-aware activity of birds in a world that is more theirs than it will ever be Fernando's.

 

"The one constant is vast, beautiful, terrifying nature, and man's piddling place within it."

 

From this point the film veers more deeply into the surreal, and its engagement with religious symbols and myths becomes far more subversive.

Half-drowned, Fernando comes under the care of a pair of Chinese pilgrims (Wen and Suan) who have become utterly lost after straying from the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Moments before stumbling upon the unconscious Fernando, they are seen kneeling and praying to St Anthony — who, after all, is the patron saint of lost things. They resuscitate him, but when he proves reluctant to help them recover their true course (he needs to return to his own life), they drug and bind him ritualistically.

Fernando escapes, but is far from free and clear. As he traverses the wilderness he is on a pilgrimage of his own, with wonder and terror to be found at each turn. He runs afoul of a gaggle of men, dressed in shaggy motley, speaking the near-extinct language of Mirandese, and engaged in rituals that are part pagan, part frat-house (Fernando, in hiding, even endures being urinated upon by one).

In iconography St Anthony is often portrayed nursing the child Jesus; Fernando meets a youthful (adult) goatherd (Cagio) also named Jesus, and their brief encounter spans friendship, sexual passion, suspicion and eventually violence.

A knife wound in Jesus' side refers to the spear-wound in that of the crucified Christ; later this symbolism is folded back on itself when Fernando meets Jesus' twin, who is dead from an identical wound to his side, and who revives after Fernando has fondled said puncture. The image of Fernando inserting his fingers into the wound, as the 'doubting' disciple Thomas did to the resurrected Christ, is rendered with both erotic and biblical overtones.

If that's not convoluted enough from an allegorical standpoint, the resurrected twin's name turns out to be, in fact, Thomas — a name that has its roots in the Aramaic word for, simply, 'twin'.

In short, The Ornithologist is symbolically dense and wickedly iconoclastic, and there's also plenty of intrigue (or outrage) to be found in unpicking its meaning. If this review seems to be ridden with spoilers, it is, but it also leaves many surprises of both subversive and meditative variety in tact. It is in the film's nature that viewers will bring their own interpretations to bear; fundamentally surrealist, it does not lend itself to literal readings.

The one constant is vast, beautiful, terrifying nature, and man's piddling place within it; Fernando watches the birds, but Poças' recurring aerial point-of-view shots leave us in no doubt that the birds watch him, too.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Ornithologist, João Pedro Rodrigues, Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, Chan Suan


 

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A triumph, thanks, Tim! I must see it.
Michael Furtado | 02 November 2017


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