Portuguese writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist starts out as a study of wild birds, becomes a man-lost-in-the-wilderness tale, has a gay erotic interlude and at least one killing, and is also the story of Saint Anthony of Padua. But this well-paced, beautifully shot film doesn’t have any hint of confusion — or camp. I Skyped with Rodrigues after the film played at the New York Film Festival.
The first part of the film has lovely close-ups of birds that could have come from a nature documentary. What was shooting like in a reserve where humans usually aren’t allowed?
We were with rangers who patrol the area. Like the main character, we were in a boat. We had to wait for the birds by their nests.
Why did you make a film in such an isolated place?
When I was a child, I wanted to be an ornithologist. I spent weekends in the country and tried to catalog the birds I saw. The reserve hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. The types of birds we filmed were there when Saint Anthony was alive in the thirteenth century.
Though much of the film could have taken place in the past, it’s obviously in the present, with the main character, Fernando, checking texts on his phone. It’s based on an old story — did you always imagine the action taking place now?
Yes. The film is based on the life of Saint Anthony, but what we know is maybe false. There’s no writing on him from when he lived. Today, everybody has a cellphone. The Franciscans — the order Saint Anthony belonged to — abandoned every material, worldly possession. Fernando abandons even his phone. He abandons the pills that could keep him alive.
When he loses the psychiatric medication that his partner reminds him through texts to take, his religious experience begins. Do you think religious experiences and hallucinations are related?
[Laughs] So for you he’s hallucinating? I’m not sure he’s taking psychiatric meds. He could be taking medication because he’s HIV-positive. All we know is: He needs to take those pills every day. I’m interested in religious experience because of its erotic aspects. Saint Teresa of Ávila describes seeing Christ as sensual, not just transcendental.
You dubbed the lead, French actor Paul Hamy, with your own voice. Did you use any special methods to make the dubbed parts seem natural?
With the sound engineer I did the dubbing at least twenty times. It was difficult to get the tone right, the acoustics right, the acting right. I didn’t plan on doing it. Paul Hamy spoke the Portuguese lines, but he learned the language in a month, so he wasn’t convincing. When Fernando becomes Saint Anthony toward the end, his body transforms and the audience suddenly sees me in the role. But my voice is haunting the character from the start.
You’ve said that the film is influenced by director Pier Paolo Pasolini, but some of the scenes could have come out of Caravaggio paintings. Did other artists influence the look of the film?
What I learned about religion I learned from paintings. In a painting, the artist distills into a single image the story of a saint. You have to choose the moment, very similar to cinema. Religious paintings can be very carnal. Pasolini was also interested in that.
The band of pagans in the film are rowdy and wear jingling, ruffled costumes like evil clowns. Are they based on real pagans?
The pagans are a little bit true and a little bit invented. There’s this tradition in the north of Portugal that young, unmarried men are part of these groups. They speak Mirandese, an old language still used in that part of the country. I wanted to use several languages, including ones not widely known, because people said Saint Anthony understood every language. The costumes the pagans wear are the costumes of real pagans, but the art director and I changed the masks. They’re from Japan.
The young Chinese religious pilgrims tell Fernando he has to sleep outside because they are “good Christian girls,” but they also have sex with each other and make him their prisoner. Were you showing the disconnect between what Christianity proscribes and how Christians actually live?
I wanted characters who were not one-sided. In the beginning the Chinese women seem naïve and scared, but at the end we understand they’re not. I made several films in Macau. These characters could have come from them.
The film has a lot of blood, like when the young Chinese woman tastes the blood on the other’s knee. But it’s evocative, not gratuitous or gross. How did you see the blood in the film?
Blood is life, right? And it’s also, nowadays, dangerous. It can be infectious. But what the characters do is childlike, too. When you’re a child and you have a wound, you just lick it.
The film imagines a Catholicism that embraces its pagan roots and queer sexuality. Do you think the church will ever come to terms with human sexuality?
I have no idea. When Anthony revives the young man, it’s based on The Miracle of Saint Anthony, which describes him putting his mouth onto the young man’s mouth so that their tongues touch. Even if the church never accepts eroticism, it was always there. It’s part of human nature. And saints were human.
That miracle Saint Anthony performs on the young man is very sexual-seeming. For a lot of us who are queer, especially those of us who came of age in the Seventies and Eighties, queer sex and desire were kind of a miracle. Did you think of your sexuality that way?
I guess. I’m not religious, but Portugal is Catholic; the weights of Catholicism are still present. I’m fifty, so they were much more present when I was younger. But I was a shy guy. It was hard for me to connect with people. It still is.
You connect with people through your films!