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    Spellbinding Drama The Ornithologist Blends Reality and Fantasy

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Gay writer/director João Pedro Rodrigues’s spellbinding drama The Ornithologist, opened July 7 in San Francisco, and anyone who can still catch this film will find it worthwhile. Fernando (Paul Hamy) is the title character, who observes black storks along the Douro river in Northeast Portugal (by the border with Spain). After getting caught in some rapids, he encounters a pair of Christian Chinese hikers, Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan), as well as Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), a hunky deaf shepherd with whom he has a tryst, and a trio of topless female hunters (Juliane Elting, Flora Bulcao, and Isabelle Puntel). The further Fernando gets on his journey, the more he discovers about himself. The Ornithologist blends reality and fantasy, but it is also an imaginative reworking of the allegory of St. Anthony of Padua.

    Rodrigues spoke via Skype with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about making this remarkable film.

    Gary M. Kramer: What inspired you to make The Ornithologist, and to present a queer riff on St. Anthony of Padua?

    João Pedro Rodrigues: I liked this idea of working with Portuguese popular culture, but also something that is grounded in tradition, and also mythical. The film departs from a lot of different mythologies, Christian mythologies, and ancestral traditions. I like the idea of going back to something in our culture and appropriating that material and turning it into my own material. During the dictatorship, religion was one of the pillars, and the story of St. Anthony was told as a symbol of family and good behavior, but that was not what he was about. He was a Franciscan born in Lisbon and died in Padua, and he was much closer to nature, not material goods. I wanted to go back to something closer to these Franciscans, who were like ecologists. I took all these pieces and wanted to tell about a man set in nature who gets lost with no human contacts. It goes back to my studying ornithology and biology before I studied film. These departures tell in a free way the mythological story of this saint.

    Gary M. Kramer: There are many scenes that deal with communication and connection, from Fernando speaking English with the Chinese girls to his physical and erotic coupling with Jesus. Can you discuss this theme?

    João Pedro Rodrigues:
    I think that also came from the legend of the saint. He could understand every language, and everyone understood him, even if he spoke with a different language. Even fish could understand him. There is a connection between human and animal that St. Anthony could make. I liked this idea of having many languages coexist in one film and in one place.

    Gary M. Kramer: In many of your films, your LGBT characters are outsiders in society, more comfortable on their own than with other people. How does this theme play out in your work?

    João Pedro Rodrigues: It’s more that they follow their own instincts to cope with the world. They like being apart from society; they find their own space, and live with the idea that you have to create your own world to live in. It’s also connected to myself. I don’t think it’s possible to make something artistic and not be personal. Films are my way of communicating with other people. This is how I feel comfortable. I have something to say through film. There are things I don’t understand, because I don’t think films are stories that should have clear messages, but they are inspired by my own experience.

    Gary M. Kramer: Paul Hamy gives a remarkable, full-bodied performance. His body is fetishized throughout the film; he is tied up in his underwear like St. Sebastian, seen sunbathing naked, and even getting a golden shower as a kind of baptism. What was it like to work on such scenes with Hamy?

    João Pedro Rodrigues: In a way, when I choose an actor, it’s a form of sublimating a desire. I have to desire an actor in a way to film them. It’s part of that, and why I’m so interested in more physical performance. It was hard for Paul to be strung up, but we rehearsed that scene, and I rehearsed it on myself. The girl who helped us was a bondage expert who helped to tie him and film him. We shot that scene over three days. It was very hard. There was always a way that, if he felt bad, we could untie him quickly. It’s important he had this suffering, and could communicate that to be real to anyone who sees the film. He had to suffer. These demands are, I think, the only way to get these performances from the actors. There’s a connection with suffering.

    © 2017 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer