You do not have to be a Portuguese Catholic to appreciate “The Ornithologist,” but I imagine that it really helps.
The movie, written and directed by João Pedro Rodrigues, begins with a quotation from St. Anthony about the warmth a person is apt to feel when he “approaches the Spirit” openly. The initial images are of a marsh at dawn, populated by some exotic-looking and shy-seeming birds, and of a nest full of eggs.
Fernando, the title character, played by Paul Hamy, is camping out in this remote area of northern Portugal; with his binoculars at the ready, he is eager to get some work done. But a phone call with bad reception, in which a friend or relative reminds him to take his meds, vexes him a little. Soon, though, he has bigger troubles, as rapid water sends his kayak off course.
The movie cuts to a couple of young Chinese women on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, depicting their adventures so far in a series of smartphone photos. They seem pretty normal. Lost in the woods, they come across a supine and unconscious Fernando. The two women revive him, feed him and later truss him up and suspend him from a tree while he’s asleep. After Fernando awakes and manages to free himself, he spies on them outside of their tent. “Tomorrow, we’ll castrate him,” one exclaims. These women are not so normal after all.
Fernando escapes, but other odd encounters await him. He finds the remains of his kayak, placed upright in the middle of what looks like a ritual circle. By night, he witnesses a group of costumed men whooping it up in what appears to be some kind of pagan frat ritual. By the time Fernando encounters a mute shepherd named Jesus, you may have figured out that “The Ornithologist” is an allegory, or something like it. As it happens, it is an irrational, aspirational, surreal retelling of the story of St. Anthony.
Mr. Rodrigues is an accomplished director whose best-known films in the United States — “O Fantasma” (2002) and “To Die Like a Man” (2011) — were stylistically distinctive, relatively realistic treatments of queer themes. “The Ornithologist,” while containing imagery that’s influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Luis Buñuel, is very much Mr. Rodrigues’s own. His approach to this material occasionally brings homoerotic themes to the forefront, and is very 21st-century in its knowing detachment and occasional mischief. By the same token, though, there are times when he flirts with the ridiculous, and delves into it. Mr. Rodrigues ultimately delivers an intriguing, daring film that is likely to surprise both his fans and moviegoers unfamiliar with his work.
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