Locarno: Joao Pedro Rodrigues Talks “The Ornithologist,’ St. Anthony, What Birds See

“I wanted to make a ‘Pasolini-type’ Western, says the Portuguese director of his Locarno competition entry

The Ornithologist

“Whoever approached the Spirit will feel its warmth, hence his heart will be lifted up to new heights,” begins Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ “The Ornithologist.”

The quote from St. Anthony perfectly sums up the journey through which Rodrigues takes his viewers, a journey of change and exploration through mythology and self-identity. The film tells the story of Fernando, an ornithologist who gets lost on one of his expeditions and goes through a metaphysical, physical and psychological transformation as he discovers more about himself.  Variety talked to Rodrigues as the film bowed at Locarno.

The film is full of religious symbolism. How did you decide on that?

I tried to do like a biopic of St. Anthony but a totally upside one – totally happily blasphemous. St. Anthony is like the patron of Lisbon. I like to dig into Portuguese mythology and St. Anthony is very popular mythology. We have no idea if it’s true because it’s someone from the 13th century. I became obsessed with him: During the dictatorship, he was a symbolic figure – religion was very important at the time. I wanted to make an iconoclastic film about a character that I appropriated. My idea was to depart from the mythology.

Where did you film “The Ornithologist” and why did you choose that place?

We filmed it in one of the most remote parts of Portugal. In some places it’s like a nature reserve that not even humans can enter. But we had permission to film there. It’s like “virgin” nature. There are the species you see in the film that are protected: People aren’t allowed in so that they won’t get disturbed because there are few left. The character is trying to get back home. I didn’t want any interiors in the film. I liked the idea of being in mysterious places because they are not populated and very little is known about it.

What was your favorite part of making this film?

It was a pleasure to film birds, for example. I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was young. The access was tough and we had to carry all the materials by hand but it was like this adventurous way to make a film even if we were very prepared before we set out. Everything was very precise, to find the way of this character in nature. It’s physical, psychological and metaphysical.

Why did you switch with Paul Hamy as Fernando at the end of the film?

I thought it would be a lot stronger if the change was totally radical and being physical is the most radical you can be. I thought a lot about how animals look at us. The idea that the birds themselves can see the transformation before it happens. Usually you film birds in nature but you never think about how they see you and it was one of the ideas that made it through the film. It was a complete mystery to me. What is in their heads? It’s impossible to know but I thought that cinema could be the medium via which I could approach this kind of question.

What does the dove represent?

I was playing with that symbolism, it comes from religion and from painting, religion but seen through art – the white dove being the Holy Spirit. It’s all in this idea that’s kind of iconoclastic. I’m not religious myself but I’m intrigued by religious iconography. It’s a symbolic thing but can be a real thing, a real white dove that he gets in his hand.

What message do you hope viewers get from the film?

Everyone sees whatever they see. I think hard because all viewers are different. It depends on your background and experience. I think I’m hoping people get intrigued by the concept of spirituality in our current time, if in the end it really makes sense or not.I wanted to make a western. Like a “Pasolini-type” Western. Like in a Western, the hero has to endure a series of challenges and privations in an adventure journey towards self-knowledge and finally, perhaps, enlightenment. I guess that’s what I aimed for.