Turgid drama fails to take wing

The Ornithologist
Written and directed by Joao Pedro Rodrigues
118 minutes, rated MA 15+

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??????Cinemas - Dendy Newtown (Sydney), Nova (Melbourne)

The Portuguese writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues calls this his Pasolini western, which almost sounds like fun.

Rodrigues certainly shares a few traits with the late, great Italian poet and iconoclast.

They're both fond of antagonising the Catholic church, which is not as uncommon now as it was 60 years ago, when Pasolini was starting out in film. Pasolini was persecuted, pilloried and eventually prosecuted, in 1963, for offence to the Italian state and religion.

He was murdered in brutal fashion in 1975 in a mob-style killing, but whether that was because of his homosexuality, his communism, his films or all three, is still debated.

That's one of the essential differences between then and now: it's harder to be an iconoclast, at least in the West.

Rodrigues can make The Ornithologist and no one objects, either to its anti-establishment satirical edge or its underpinning of gay desire.

Indeed, he won best director last year at Locarno Film Festival for this film. If the award was for dullness, I would have to agree.

The Ornithologist is beautifully directed in one sense: it makes great use of location. The setting is southern Portugal, where a young man takes his canoe to study birds in the canyons of a wild river, far from civilisation.

The early scenes are contemplative and somewhat mesmerising as Fernando (Paul Hamy) takes an early morning swim, before observing grebes on the nest and golden eagles on the wing.

They observe him, too. We get their slightly distorted view of his canoe, as Rodrigues starts to disrupt reality.

He's supposed to be experienced in the wild, but he's distracted by some rare cranes. He overturns in the rapids. Cue two Chinese walkers, stumbling around in the misty wilderness.

Fei and Ling (Han Wen and Chan Suan) are lost pilgrims. When they rescue and revive him, he points out they're a long way from the Camino de Santiago (an understatement).

St James can't help us now, says one; we must trust in St Anthony (whose real name was Fernando). This is a sort of geographic joke: St James, or Sant Iago, looks after walkers. St Anthony is the patron saint of Lisbon, where he was born, and of lost things.

There's another joke late in the film when someone walks into Padua - where Anthony died. Given that Padua is in Italy, we must accept that the film takes place solely in a Europe of the director's imagination.

The Chinese girls turn out to be psychos. The ornithologist is lucky to escape them, but his trials are far from over.

He still has to deal with the deaf-mute gay goat shepherd, the screaming drunk banshees who cavort in the forest at night and his own failing sense of reality, once separated from his medication.

We're never told what the medication is for, but it appears to be anti-psychotic. Or else he really does turn into St Anthony of Padua, whose life inspired some of these reimaginings. Take your pick.

The longer it goes, the more symbolic it becomes but not in a way that preserves any underlying dramatic tension or logic. Fernando has no use for logic anyway; his phone receives texts from his boyfriend, who's worried, but he never thinks to reply.

Indeed, twice he throws his phone away, part of his symbolic path towards freedom, which is hard to distinguish from insanity. Some of the symbols made me laugh, but I'm not sure they were meant to.

Far from making me think about the role of the church in Portugal or man in nature or sexuality unbound, the film made me hope for a miracle - that of deliverance.

This story Turgid drama fails to take wing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.