The symbolic becomes the literal in João Pedro Rodrigues’s “The Ornithologist,” a Biblical allegory set in the wilds of Portugal.
The title character (Paul Hamy) is a man of science, trained to study birds and their behavior. He has an accident on a remote river, and is “saved” by two dotty Chinese pilgrims (Han Wen, Chan Suan). They’re lost, a long ways from the famed ancient pilgrimage trail that Saint James took to Spain’s Santiago de Compestela.
“Saint James has abandoned us!”
They communicate with the man they’ve pulled from the river and revived in English, the only language they all share in common. And the more they talk, the more irked, or at least alarmed, Fernando (Hamy) becomes.
“We’re cursed! We are surrounded by forest spirits! The Devil is here!”
He’s ungrateful enough to decline to help them find their way back to Spain, and dismissive of their superstitions — Christian and otherwise.
“There’s no such THING as the Devil!”
He shouldn’t be shocked when he wakes up, trussed up in a Chinese web of ropes, their prisoner. Because, apparently, they didn’t bring anything to nail him to a tree with.
Fernando makes his escape, only to start hearing the weird noises the women were complaining of, and then see the primitive pagan rituals of some oddball dress-up cult, or boys’ club.
Rodrigues tests Fernando for what seem like 40 days and 40 nights, just like Jesus.
And then our hero meets Jesus himself — literally, a deaf-mute shepherd leading his flock with a dog and a whistle.
The writer-director of “O Fantasma” and “Two Drifters” tosses in a homosexual make-out session and an encounter with topless female stag hunters, a knife fight and every symbolic bird in the book. Like Terence Malick, he lets the camera share reveries in nature, and the film delights in showing us cranes, eagles and the Great Crested Grebe of Portugal, as well as scenes of its star, Hamy, naked.
Owls float into Fernando’s odyssey, harbingers of death in many cultures. And if the whole Christian allegory isn’t plain enough, an injured white dove makes its way to our pilgrim.
“The Ornithologist” is so stunningly strange and out of its time that this slow and deliberate film holds your attention, making you wonder what wonder or calamity will befall Fernando next, if he will “find his way” to Jesus, as the Chinese hikers speculate, or, being a man of science, will simply kill God.
But no wagering on that outcome. Just pay attention and make the connections and marvel that decades removed from the allegorical Euro-cinema of the ’60s, Rodrigues has crafted a throwback movie, and found a way to challenge viewers with a superstitious tale over two thousand years old.