Homoerotic, kinky bondage, and Catholic parables do not usually fit within the same sentence, that’s why we were so intrigued to see one of this year's most unconventional films at MIFF – The Ornithologist. This Portuguese film from 2016 stars Paul Hamy as a birdwatcher on a research trip, who is drawn into an increasingly bizarre series of events loosely inspired by the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.
After getting distracted watching some birds, and loosing control of his small kayak down rapids, the titular ornithologist (a branch of zoology with a focus on birds) wakes up to find a pair of Catholic Chinese women have saved his life. They are on a pilgrimage to spiritual fulfilment, and from that point onwards the story becomes increasingly surreal and bizarre as Fernando the bird watcher careers from one strange encounter to the next. There are masked demon worshippers performing a pagan ritual, topless women firing guns from horseback and a fleeting gay romance with a goatherd that takes a deadly turn.
Slow cinema is not for everyone, and this film definitely falls into that category. If you enjoy strong driving narrative, and questions answered in a satisfying way – this is not the film for you. For lovers of the bizarre and unusual, or even people wanting to see lots of nudity, gore, kinky bondage, murder and birds – this is your kind of cult film. To begin with we could empathise with Fernando, he is lost, off his medication and literally down a stream without a boat. But soon it became apparent that Fernando is just a means for the filmmaker to tell a series of smaller stories and explore different aspects of sexual desires and human instincts.
The strange and sometimes grotesque blending of genres and themes by filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues doesn’t always hit the mark. There are elements of spirituality, LGBT identity (though this is never satisfying explored), history and mythology. The Ornithologist may not be for everyone, but if you are ready to embrace the surreal, unanswerable and perplexing questions here then there is a lot to discover. Just make sure you see it with someone else, so you can debrief yourselves afterwards.
Tomas Zagoda is a filmmaker, writer, coffee addict and tall person who does not play basketball. You can follow him on your social media channel of choice @TomasZagoda.
The Ornithologist has a limited run at Melbourne International Film Festival. Buy tickets now.
The venue is accessible.