Portugese filmmaker Joao Pedro Rodrigues always struggles with his gayness, usually in films filled with mysterious, macabre events. His best known movie, O Fantasma (2000) has been revered in some circles but it could also, reasonably, be reviled. Rodrigues works toward both responses—even in a berserk, mournful romance like Two Drifters (2009) which was titled after a line from “Moon River,” the 1960s pop tune that has become an anthem for fretful yet poignant gay longing.
Rodrigues’ newest film The Ornithologist confirms suspicion that bizarre, sometimes repellant longings—a clash of the spiritual and the carnal—inspire the director’s consistent theme.
In this gay Robinson Crusoe-type story, bird-watcher and anthropologist Fernando (Paul Hamy) gets lost in the wild after his kayak capsizes. Fernando’s adventure—his journey—is alternately captivating and distanced, erotic and morbid. He encounters two pious-yet-sadistic Chinese women; spies upon a Dionysian cult; fucks a nubile deaf mute; is hunted by a group of bare-chested Amazons; anfd he even preaches to a pool of fish about their existence throughout evolution.
Clearly there’s a religious parallel in all this mysterious foraging, discovery, danger, escape and bewilderment (referencing the life of St. Anthony of Padua according to the film’s press kit, although the high point is the image of a visibly aroused Fernando tied-up like St. Sebastian). Rodrigues’ usual dark irreverence is conveyed with genuine technical command that verges on the ineffable—from nature imagery to moody scenes of surreal events, he shows the influence of gay Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives).
At age 50, Rodrigues arrives at images that convey the uncertainty about fate and existence that comes with maturity. Trangressive Rodrigues transforms the cynicism that younger gay men sometimes mistake for rebellion. (This movie is a dour version of the larky gay transformations seen earlier this year in Alain Guirauderie’s Staying Vertical).
Paul Hamy’s tall, lean torso and supple rump reveal Rodrigues’ expected eroticism which comes across even though the sex scene with the young plump deaf mute is shot objectively. Still, this “adventure of the senses” is always contrasted by unsettling doubt. A “Doubting Thomas” parable provides a typically Rodriques moment that is both erotic and grisly. It’s Rodrigues who doubts his own skepticism. He uses blasphemous stunts (such as the gruesome moment the director himself switches roles with sexy Hamy) to show personal misgivings about his own sexual being.
American gay movies never contemplate gay life as having existential or spiritual meaning but that is Rodrigues’ adventure in this strange, mesmerizing study of the transformation of gay consciousness. The Ornithologist could easily have been titled The Philosopher or The Theological Transformer.