In a scene from “The Ornithologist“, one character advises another that “there are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand.” Uttered towards the end of the narrative, this statement might as well have been directed towards the audience. Indeed, João Pedro Rodrigues boldly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, ensaring the viewer in a mysterious and mesmerizing adventure.
“The Ornithologist” is set in a forest in northern Portugal, where Fernando (our titular protagonist) is carrying out his chosen profession along a remote river. On this solitary excursion with nary a human in sight, he is on the lookout for endangered black storks. But when his boat capsizes and leaves him unconscious, his peaceful getaway soon transforms into a harrowing ordeal. After being fortunately rescued by a pair of Chinese women who have lost their way to Santiago de Compostela, he starts to realize that something is not right. Before long, they have stripped him down to his underwear while he is sleeping. But this is just the beginning of even stranger encounters to come, as Fernando (Paul Hamy) must gather his wits to make it out alive.
As Fernando sets out on his dangerous trek through the woods, “The Ornithologist” brings to mind John Boorman’s “Deliverance” with its brawny protagonist and trapped in the wilderness premise. But rather than simply paying homage, Rodrigues charts an even more unsettling course for his narrative than the hillbilly terror of that 1972 thriller. Doubling down on mind-boggling mystery, the film masterfully creates an atmosphere of dread. From the disquieting silences, to the foreboding yet vibrantly verdant landscape, the film immerses us in Fernando’s surreal experience.
Indeed, it’s easy to see why Rodrigues was rewarded with the Best Director prize at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. The film displays a remarkable, distinctive vision, never settling for cliched scares or stylistic bravado. Instead, Rodrigues captures your attention through deliberate but impactful direction. As patient as the act of bird-watching, the story is therefore prone to periodic lulls. But with the aid of Hamy’s striking screen presence and the script’s unpredictability, it’s almost impossible to look away.
And ultimately, “The Ornithologist” rewards those attentive viewers with a film that is perverse, erotic, spiritual and wholly original. Whether it’s the allegory associated with its frequent Christian symbolism or the bizarre situations we witness along the way, it gives you much to ponder. Indeed, by the time you emerge from its audaciously ambiguous ending, it’s obvious that you won’t see another film like it this year.
“The Ornithologist” opens in select theaters June 23.