Virtually the talk of the Locarno Film Festival, João Pedro Rodrigues‘ The Ornithologist has continued the Portuguese auteur’s fascination with his nation’s history, all while delivering a deeply funny, strange film that breaks from many of this festival season’s more austere, serious work.
We sat down with the man who won Best Director at the festival to talk Saint Anthony (the claimed figure at the center of his film), as well as the technical challenges and his lead actor, Paul Hamy‘s, bound-to-be-a-star breakout performance.
The Film Stage: In the film’s press kit, you mention that one of the inspirations was how, when you approach the age of 50, you start to think about all these lives you could’ve led. Is that something that’s very specific to being an artist?
João Pedro Rodrigues: I think it’s specific to being a human being. [Laughs] I think everybody has that feeling. You always look at your life in retrospect, I think, especially when you turn these mythical ages. Though it’s true that I wanted to be an ornithologist when I was a kid. And I was, but then I studied films and I made films. I could’ve been an ornithologist; I’m a scientific person.
When I think of your few films — O Fantasma, Two Drifters, To Die Like a Man — I kind of think of them as genre pieces, in ways. Like a thriller or a melodrama. But with your last couple of films and shorts, you’ve really turned to tackling Portuguese identity and history. What’s behind the compulsion to act the historian of sorts?
I don’t know if I have a compulsion. But I don’t know if this is just Portuguese mythology. It’s broader, because it’s about the most popular saint in the world. But what I’m interested in is more to depart from the popular knowledge about this event that happened a long time ago. But everybody knows them, so they’re like the structure over which I can trace different stories. It’s the life story of a saint, but I traced a story that is totally different. Of course, in the end, the film is not the real life of the saint. I don’t believe the church would be like, “Let’s show this biopic of Saint Anthony.” [Laughs] I think that Catholicism is so inside Portuguese culture and European culture, but I’m not a religious person myself, and I’m trying to break up with that. But it’s something that intrigues me, especially in how I arrived to religion through art — like paintings, for instance.
And how do you portray a Saint as a transcendental being? But portraying a man or a woman. So you have to give him or her features. There’s the model. Many painters painted models as the Virgin Mary or what. But they’re all mythical figures and you don’t know if they existed or not. But I like his idea of, “How do you embody transcendency? How do you incarnate transcendency?” I think it’s what most interests me. How do you talk about mythology with something that is very much real life? It’s like people and actors in front of a camera, and of course I’m not doing The Ten Commandments. [Laughs] And I’ve been very free with those stories; trying, in a way, to tell a story that’s closer to me but, at the same time, having anchors in mythical events. Not just Saint Anthony’s story, but there’s a lot of biblical episodes that I recreate. Even Pagan, because those wild guys in the forest that dress up — there’s this kind of Pagan ceremony that really exists in those parts of the country. It’s like taking things that are in the popular knowledge and making something different from them.
This is the widest aspect ratio you’ve ever used for a film. Was it difficult to adapt to that and what was the impetus behind it?
I wanted to make a film in CinemaScope, because there’s a monumentality in those spaces that I think asks for something as wide as CinemaScope. It’s really very different because we shot with anamorphic lenses. For instance, the relationship between the bodies of the actors and nature and the background is totally different that in other formats. In the beginning, I was surprised that it was so different. It’s harder to go close because there’s so much space around. I always prepare with every film — I know what I want to shoot — but, sometimes, I think I shot things in longer shots than in other films.
Did shooting outdoors make that more difficult?
It was a pleasure, because those places are so beautiful and so hidden. They are so unexplored; sometimes I felt I was somewhere where very few people had been in a long time. It’s like going back in time, because those places have been like that for a long time; they’ve changed very little. You’re in a place where time has different rules, as if you could be in the past but it’s now.
I believe I missed this in the end credits, but a friend I saw the film with pointed this out: is there a dedication to Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart?
Because, when I think of both of those actors, I think of the stars of Anthony Mann westerns. Do you see the film as your version of a western?
That was one of the main ideas, to make a western, because it’s my favorite genre. Because there’s really this [sense of] man and nature. You can really see how a man can be strong or weak in nature, how he can resist or survive. It’s like you’re challenging the physicality. That’s why I like those few years of the wild men; I thought a little bit of them as like Indians in a John Ford film.
But I was thinking more about someone like Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott — that kind of, like, harshness and very fast storytelling. In some of these films they are very precise. Also, I like people that are not artistic in a sense. These are people that did a lot of films and did not see themselves as artists, like doing a job. I like the idea of doing a job, doing something with efficiency.
Do you see your lead actor, Paul Hamy, as a Gary Cooper-like figure? Did you get that rugged-movie-star quality from him?
He’s half-American, half-French, and I don’t really like French actors. [Laughs] I couldn’t find anyone in Portugal to portray the character I imagined, and I thought he had in himself a physicality. Also there are not many words in the film, because he’s mostly alone. He has this kind of monumentality, so I thought he could easily play in a western as Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott, like where they also sometimes don’t speak much. For me, he had the same importance as nature, as well as the animals. Everything is at the same level, in a sense; I tried looking at him like I was looking at the birds, as I was looking at nature.
Watching the film, it reminded me of how certain directors have used animals in films as a supernatural vessel. I think of Jacques Rivette and cats, or David Lynch and owls in Twin Peaks. When you were originally an ornithologist, did you get that feeling looking at animals all day, that they had this otherworldly quality that inspired you creatively?
There’s a lot of myths with birds, and there’s a lot of symbolism with birds. But what made me do what I did was scientific, because when I was looking at birds I was really looking at them scientifically. Of course, one bird is very symbolic: the white dove. The white dove is like the ultimate symbol of the holy spirit; it’s always portrayed like that in paintings. So of course I used that symbolism, but it’s also like just doves: there’s a physical white dove and not the ethereal dove, like in paintings. He holds the dove, it has a broken wing, and it’s guiding him. But I always think the departure is not the symbol but the physicality. It’s a bird, and then, perhaps, it’s the holy spirit. Or you can look at it that way, but it’s the bird that interests me.
The Ornithologist premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and opens on June 23.