Easier to admire than it is to describe, João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist (which opens Friday at the Music Box) dances around motifs of faith, death, and transfiguration without quite asserting what it’s all about. The film recognizes its ambiguity, however, and has fun with it, shifting its shape whenever it seems like it’s about to settle on a particular message.
It’s a wry work. 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. It’s also full of incidental pleasures, featuring a dense soundtrack (rich in sounds like birdsong, wind, and animal bleating) and beautiful images of the mountains and forests of western Portugal. In fact the movie renders its natural setting so vividly that it practically feels like a character, and this anthropomorphic quality adds to the overall sense of mystery. This is a feature one can get lost in, which is appropriate, as the main character is lost for most of the running time.
In its elusiveness, avant-garde flourishes, and religious subject matter, The Ornithologist sometimes suggests a feature-length expansion of Rodrigues’s experimental short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day (2012). That film presented random people sleepwalking through a depopulated city as though motivated by a spiritual force. The Ornithologist concerns a man who gets sucked into a religious quest against his will.
It begins plainly enough, showing the title character, Fernando, as he goes for a swim in a mountain stream and observes birds for scientific research. The opening shots present Fernando as one with nature, placing him in the middle of expansive wide-screen frames that emphasize environments above character. Rodrigues seems to be setting the stage for a straightforward tale about one man communing with the natural world, but even in these passages, he leaves certain details ambiguous. It isn’t clear whom Fernando calls on his cell phone after his swim; moreover the person on the other end of the line implores Fernando to take his medication, but what he’s taking it for is uncertain.
Things soon get more complicated. Kayaking downstream, Fernando gets sucked into a rapid and his boat capsizes. Rather than show the fallout of his accident, Rodrigues cuts unexpectedly to two Chinese women hiking in the woods. The women, we learn, are Fei and Ling, a lesbian couple hiking the Saint James Way. Rodrigues resumes a tranquil tone as he presents them hiking; for a few minutes, it feels as though the opening passages with Fernando never happened. But after a brilliantly edited photomontage that recounts the women’s journey to date, Rodrigues shows the women finding Fernando unconscious by a riverbank. Lin, invoking the words of Saint Anthony, says they should be Good Samaritans and help the stranger, and so they revive him with the help of a first aid kit. Rodrigues presents the revival plainly, declining to make it seem miraculous, foreshadowing later passages where miracles take place without incident.
That night, as the three characters get to know each other around a campfire, Fei and Ling aver that they believe the forest to be haunted by the devil. Fernando replies that he doesn’t believe in the devil or God, and the women take offense at his lack of faith. Still they ask him to be their guide and help them get back to the Saint James Way (they realize they’ve lost the trail). Fernando declines, but not firmly, suggesting the possibility that he can be convinced. The gentle tone of this scene hints at a story of renewed faith: perhaps Fernando will guide the women, find the way, and experience an epiphany that will shake him out of his atheism. But Rodrigues has something darker and stranger up his sleeve. (Readers who want to be surprised by the film may want to stop reading here; spoilers follow.)
The next morning Fernando awakes to find himself tied up in an elaborate manner suggesting S-M play. The women, fearing he’d leave them in the night, have taken him prisoner. That these religious questers turn out to be paranoid sadists is a fine Buñuelian joke—not only does the development come out of left field, it savages Christian hypocrisy with deadpan aplomb. But the joke has serious consequences—the women have no plans to free Fernando, and they even discuss castrating him. (Perhaps the forest really is possessed by the devil!) Before Fei and Ling can carry out their dastardly deed, though, Fernando escapes, stealing provisions he can use as he makes his way back to his camp.
Fernando reaches his base, but finds that most of his possessions (including his car) are gone. Lacking his gear and a proper cell phone connection, he’s now stranded in the mountains. Fernando doesn’t panic, but continues to camp and observe birds. That night he spies on a group of revelers performing a strange ritual that involves dancing and the slaughter of a wild boar.
The next day he encounters a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus; the two men go for a swim, then make love. When Fernando notices some of his belongings on Jesus’s person, he asks whether the shepherd knows where the rest of his stuff is. Jesus misinterprets Fernando’s plea as an affront, then takes out his knife to hold him back. The men scuffle, and Jesus accidentally falls on his blade, dying instantly. Acting as if on instinct, Fernando cleans up the murder scene and flees. Nothing in the film thus far has suggested that the hero would react so coldly to a crisis, but then, Rodrigues has divulged so little about him that his behavior doesn’t necessarily come as a shock. It’s as though Fernando’s identity is in flux, changing based on whatever comes his way.
Fernando becomes more enigmatic as the story proceeds, disposing of his cell phone and burning off his fingerprints. In getting lost, he’s decided to strip himself of his identity altogether. The events of The Ornithologist get more enigmatic too, as Fernando encounters several miracles, Jesus’s doppelganger, and a trio of topless, Latin-speaking huntresses. Rodrigues doesn’t provide many clues as to what this all means. Regardless, his journey is a transfixing experience, as Rodrigues’s narrative curveballs and vivid depiction of nature seduce the viewer into a world where anything seems possible. If nothing else, the film reminds one of how strange and beautiful existence can be.