As we ponder what shape 2020’s BFI London Film Festival might take, I’m reminded of a favourite LFF memory from its 60th edition back in 2016. The Ornithologist is the perfect film to stumble upon off-guard, as I did sneaking in late as the lights went down. This strange and transcendentally queer odyssey concerns handsome scientist Fernando (Paul Hamy), who is waylaid to alternately violent, erotic and mystical effect during a solo kayak trip deep into Portugal’s Douro river valley. Writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues here offers a subversive modern-day riff on the life of Anthony of Padua, a saintly Portuguese priest who died eight centuries ago…

Fernando’s wild journey downriver and into the woods is not entirely solitary. Anxious text messages from his boyfriend aside, he encounters lost Chinese pilgrims, drunken banshees sacrificing to the full moon, bare-breasted huntresses on horseback, and a deaf shepherd who provides a sexually-charged diversion. All is enveloped in a gorgeous colour palette of vivid greens, interspersed with flashes of blood red. Think Embrace of the Serpent (2015) meets Deliverance (1972), or not: this one defies labels. Just escape the here and now and melt into that forest – you might find yourself changed when you come out the other side.

Simon McCallum
Curator