Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Sex & the single bird-watcher


Scene from director Joao Pedro Rodrigues' "The Ornithologist." Photo: Strand Releasing
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"The Ornithologist" is the latest extraordinary visual and sensual trip from openly queer Portuguese director Joao Pedro Rodrigues. In its first act, Fernando, a solitary bird-watcher, is nestled in a canoe, trying to spot a black stork, when his small craft is trapped by the rapids. This moment, akin to Alice slipping down the rabbit hole, begins a surreal adventure in which his life will be repeatedly threatened, rescued, interrupted, and finally, completely up-ended. It all turns Fernando into perhaps a better man, but also a creature he himself would barely have recognized at the beginning of the picture.

Joao Pedro Rodrigues (born 1966) is a youngish filmmaker with a terrific visual talent whose storytelling skills can go a tad sideways for the taste of some snooty critics, for example those on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb). Ignore this carping and instead surrender yourself into the cinematic arms of a god who has his benighted hero hog-tied by a pair of young female Chinese pilgrims or vagabonds who fear Fernando's male powers. And then there's the full frontal male nudity and the explicit male-on-male-sex that arrives deep into the story and leaves a lasting impression on Fernando and on us humble viewers.

Warning: the films of Joao Pedro Rodrigues are not conventionally cast or plotted – see "To Die Like a Man" (2009), "Two Drifters" (2005) and "O Fantasma" (2000) – but they break the rules with intelligence and a firm grasp of the absurdities – particularly of the gay male division of human nature. Nothing that Fernando and his companions do is alien to us, but their behavior is forbidden, deeply taboo in the Catholic world they were raised in and in some cases expelled from.

Scene from director Joao Pedro Rodrigues' "The Ornithologist." Photo: Strand Releasing

The lead actor, Paul Hamy, is a profoundly masculine everyman whose appeal will register even with those audience members whose type he is not. Part of the appeal of "The Ornithologist" is the way Rodrigues seduces and almost abducts you into seeing the world his way. By the end of the film, when Fernando literally hits the highway, you'll be glad you came along for the ride.

Rodrigues deftly employs Fernando's problem with his cell phone as his jumping-off point from the reality of his boyfriend on the line back in Lisbon. From this moment on, his life veers madly out of control, much like a character in writer James Dickey/director John Boorman's 1972 adventure with another mad river, "Deliverance."

Rodrigues is saying that human beings are part of and subordinate to the rules and whims of Mother Nature, that LGBTQ people are very much part of Nature's plan, and hold onto your seats, it's going to be a very bumpy if gloriously queer ride. One of the film's many delights is its total immersion in the forest/river systems of Eastern Portugal, near the border with Spain. This land that time seems to have forgotten becomes a character in Fernando's pilgrimage, and is all the more alluring because it is depicted without cloying sentimentality in all its fury and indifference to human affairs.

"The Ornithologist" is for adults of all persuasions, and features characters conversing in Portuguese, Chinese and English, with English subtitles.


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