Tag Archives: Portuguese

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016)

O Ornitólogo

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao Teijo, Han Wuen, Chan Suan

PLOT: After being swept away by rapids, Fernando, an ornithologist looking for black storks, finds himself in a mysterious forest where he’ll undergo a transformative spiritual journey mirroring the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Still from The Ornithologist (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Ornithologist is the allegorical tale of an atheist ornithologist’s conversion through a succession of increasingly bizarre occurrences. Given that these moments vary from slightly odd to truly surreal, the film plays the weirdness card, although the limited number of remaining slots in the List make its inclusion uncertain.

COMMENTS: The first shots of The Ornithologist, after an introductory quote by Saint Anthony, depict a dark, calm river with a bird and plant life, accompanied by the ambient sounds of nature. After the film’s weird notes kick in, the atmosphere remains remarkably the same: quiet and naturalistic, persistently treating the strange sights of Fernando’s mystical journey as perfectly normal. The stunningly shot setting, a Portuguese forest that director João Pedro Rodrigues populates with strange images and figures, also persists for the entirety of the movie (save for the very last, and very weird, scene).

After he crashes his kayak, the titular protagonist is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims, on their way to Santiago de Compostela, with whom he spends the night. This moment marks the film’s first foray into Fernando’s symbolic journey, as well as a turn to a darker tone. When a menacing sound is heard, the frightened pilgrims assume it’s a demonic entity just as quickly as Fernando casually rebuts their belief, claiming there’s no God or Devil. Shocked by his lack of faith, they oblige him to sleep outside of their tent, and the next morning finds him tied to a tree.

From that point on, the steps on the ornithologist’s conversion grow progressively surreal; some are blatant in their symbolism (such as the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a white dove), others more obscure (naked amazons shooting him with a rifle, only to have a quick chat with him after he revives). Most are blasphemous and/or contain homoerotic undertones. They include Fernando’s baptism in urine (!), sex with a mute shepherd named Jesus (!!!), and the appearance of what appear to be embalmed animals in the woods, among other outrageous stops in his mystical-existential self-discovery arc.

These episodes are consistently engaging and reveal Rodrigues’ fascination with Christian iconography, mysticism and eroticism (a potently heretical mix), as well as his intention to filter universal religious symbols through his personal sensibilities. The “enlightenment quest” narrative will likely remind weirdophiles of ’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain, but the film is stylistically much closer to ’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, The Ornithologist‘s bizarre and phantasmagorical apparitions seamlessly blend in the environment as if they were no less natural than a tree or a bird. Accordingly, our main character remains stoic throughout his adventure. Speaking only when needed (that is, sparsely), his language, like the film’s, is mostly non-verbal. Actor Paul Hamy subtly conveys feelings of confusion and curiosity; interestingly, he has explained in interviews that he likes physical expression, comparing himself to a sculpture that the director shapes in front of the camera. The Ornithologist displays this particularly well, as Hamy’s character is aloof and his metamorphosis occurs internally, manifesting itself mostly in his careful physicality and expressions.

Even if you have difficulty relating to Fernando, it’s apparent that this is a very personal affair for Rodrigues. At one point near the end, the director himself literally steps into the shoes of the main actor. The character’s name changes to António (another reference to Saint Anthony), signalling that his transformation is complete. Fernando is not meant to be an avatar of the audience but, rather, of his creator; as a result, viewers without familiarity or investment in the narrative of Saint Anthony may find themselves estranged. The story is clearly very important to Rodrigues, and ultimately asserts itself as vaguely autobiographical. This is not to say, however, that its deeper meaning is impenetrable. Surely, watching The Ornithologist is, above all, an experience, and the beautiful cinematography and pervading atmosphere, languid and sometimes sinister, will please the adventurous viewer. But I believe exploring the film’s symbolism is a rewarding enhancement. Like Fernando, we feel shipwrecked and disoriented in such a strange environment, but by the end, we’ll probably have changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Rodrigues toys with his audience with the deadpan playfulness of Luis Buñuel, whose films The Ornithologist sometimes recalls in its tricky approach to religious themes… If nothing else, the film reminds one of how strange and beautiful existence can be.”–Ben Sachs, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ARABIAN NIGHTS (2015)

Volume 1 – the Restless One

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 1, O Inquieto

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Miguel Gomes

FEATURING: Crista Alfaiate, Miguel Gomes

PLOT: Vignettes of the lives and circumstances of various “everyman” Portuguese citizens are spliced together in the form of a series of tales à la Arabian Nights.

Still from Arabian Nights Vol 1: The Restless One (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As an almost wholly documentary-style pastiche narrative, Arabian Nights is not so much weird as relentlessly tedious and preachy. A spark of the bizarre, when the director seemingly abandons his own movie, is slow to appear and is quickly snuffed out as the film-makers go on to sermonize the audience with tales of woe.

COMMENTS: Early in the movie a massive red flag pops up when the director admits that he suspects it impossible to make a movie about tales of wonder when he’s surrounded by the uncompromising dreariness of everyday life. Indeed, he does find it impossible. He takes one of the earliest examples of fantasy as a storytelling framework to convey a series of tales that delve into the personal costs borne by Portugal’s citizenry during the Euro crisis years of austerity (from August 2013 through July 2014, as explained by an inter-title that doubles as a disclaimer about the use of the Arabian Nights name). What follows is, well, both a grind and a bore.

I mentioned earlier that there was a tiny glimmer of something interesting occurring. While the director suffers his existential crisis (something that, like the movie, only truly springs into action after twenty five minutes of dockyard and hornet nest clips dubbed over with remarks about the collapse of the shipping and honey industries), he flees his own crew and tries to hide. He is found by unidentified militants who sentence him to death for his filmic recklessness. So now we have our storyteller neck-deep in sand, and the not-so-subtle allegories begin, sporting the titles “the Men with Hard-Ons,” “The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire,” and finishing with the tripartite “Story of the Magnificents.” Each in turn becomes progressively less allegorical and increasingly polemical.

Having taken advantage of the dubious opportunity of enrolling in a “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience” seminar back in my long-distant college days, that “genre” was the first, and almost only, one that sprang to mind while watching Arabian Nights. In the vein of Soviet Socialist Realism, glorifying the common man, as well as that of Italian Neo-Realism, Arabian Nights eschews the traditional tools of (truly) cinematic storytelling in favor of capturing reality as closely as possible. While such a practice isn’t something I particularly enjoy, I don’t begrudge the fans of the genre their entertainment (or whatever word would describe the experience). However, it most certainly isn’t the way to make a weird movie.

Taking over two hours to convey its message of “austerity is unkind to the masses” (actually over six hours—there are two more installments that I am shying away from) using the same documentary/talking heads/ voiceover techniques throughout lends itself to whinging tedium. I wonder what Mr Gomes’ Iberian confrère, , might have done instead. Buñuel dabbled in documentary back in the 1930s with a short piece entitled Land Without Bread. In the space of twenty seven minutes, he not only raises the viewer’s awareness of the plight of grinding poverty in a backwards rural society, but also thoroughly tweaks the documentary genre’s nose. A modern take on Buñuel’s socially conscientious subversion might have been interesting; Gomes’ outing barely qualifies as a movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an opaque compendium of stories – like the ones Scheherazade told to stave off her own death – all responding in indirect ways to the miseries forced on Portugal by austerity, as if by a social-realist Buñuel with a bit of the novelist José Saramago’s existential musing; the same kind of absurdism and deadly serious political scepticism.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: HORSE MONEY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Pedro Costa

FEATURING: Ventura, Vitalina Varela

PLOT: A retired bricklayer from Cape Verde with a military background wanders through rooms and corridors in some kind of institution, taking visits from people from his past and mixing up flashbacks with present day reality.

Still from Horse Money (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The artistic value is high, but the story is so vague, insular and shadowy that, unless you’re an expatriate Cape Verdean intellectual or a careful follower of director Pedro Costa’s career, there’s not much to latch on to.

COMMENTS: After a slideshow of vintage stills of impoverished New Yorkers, Horse Money opens with Ventura (a non-actor playing a version of himself, who previously played what may be the same character in director Pedro Costa’s 2006 semi-documentary Colossal Youth) wandering, in red underwear, through dungeonlike stone corridors, which eventually turn into the blank industrial hallways of a nameless institution. The stone passages may be the crumbling pathways of his mind; Ventura may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or he may be dead and lost in a kind of purgatory. A doctor, or some other official, asks him his name and age; his answers are not always correct, or even responsive. He answers the question “Do you sleep well?” with “A big black bird came up on my roof.” In the hospital (if that’s what it is) he is visited by, or stumbles upon, people he has known throughout his life; some of whom may be dead. A woman from his past speaks only in a whisper and reads off records of births, deaths and marriages from a notary’s register; another visitor is revealed as an ex-friend with whom he got into a knife fight years ago. The climax (if such a word may be used for a film this quiet and subdued) is a long dialogue in an elevator between Ventura and a soldier in metallic green paint who stands statue-still and never moves his lips.

You will be confused. The confusion is purposeful; it enforces an atmosphere of dementia. The cinematography is dark, with shadows dominating nearly every frame, faces carefully lit so that their personalities emerge from a general murk. The anachronistic, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio induces a quiet claustrophobia. The movie’s overall feeling is resignation, and a sense of a character coming to grips with the fact that a hard, laborious life is slipping away. Ventura, whose hand shakes uncontrollably, is perfectly authentic in the role. He’s playing himself, mostly, but he’s also an everyman for his community of poor, working class immigrants, and he takes that responsibility seriously.

Horse Money is beautifully shot and dignifies its subject. It strives to be hypnotic, although too often it drifts from the merely dreamy towards deep, oblivious slumber. If the film makes it to DVD (not a home run proposition) fans of graceful, atmospheric minimalism will want to take a look; but even among weirdophiles, this is not a general interest movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film of formidable discontinuity that takes the form of a dream.“–Jonathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TO DIE LIKE A MAN [MORRER COMO UM HOMEM] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: João Pedro Rodrigues

FEATURING: Fernando Santos, Alexander David, Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida, Chandra Malatitch

PLOT: A conflicted pre-op transsexual drag queen lives with a suicidal junkie.

Still from To Die Like a Man (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I originally wrote: “it’s in the weird ballpark, but Man would need radical surgery to become the poignantly bizarre gender fairy tale it dreams of being.”  As discussed in the comments below, the version of the film I saw was not the version the director intended; but, the film I watched wasn’t quite strange enough to make it onto the List, and restoring the author’s vision would only make it less weird.

COMMENTS:  Funny story.  It turns out that To Die Like a Man isn’t nearly as annoying as I thought it was.  One of the first notes I jotted down in my initial viewing of the film read “telepathic commandos?”  This is because the film opens with a scene of two men in camouflage in the woods staking out a house occupied by two men in drag.  The soldiers speak to each other and their lips move, but there’s no sound; we read their conversation in subtitles.  It seemed like a curiously weird way to start the film, but the silent dialogue continued through the film’s entire two-hour plus running time; we can hear sounds in the background, we can hear it when characters sing or sob, but when they speak—nothing.  Although we’re accustomed to reading titles in foreign or silent movies, to hear birds singing and leaves rustling, see an actor’s lips moving, and yet be banned from hearing their words proves far more frustrating and irritating than you would think.  It robs the actors of half their expressiveness and inhibits our bonding with their characters.

I assumed the silence was an alienating technique designed to put us inside the estranged worldview of Tonia, the confused pre-op protagonist.  But, it turns out there was a simpler explanation for the motif  that I hadn’t thought of.  As it turns out, someone botched the preparation of the digital version I saw via Netflix’s streaming service so that the dialogue track was completely missing.  Oops.  For that reason, I can’t really give To Die Like a Man a Continue reading CAPSULE: TO DIE LIKE A MAN [MORRER COMO UM HOMEM] (2009)