Fernando (Paul Hamy) is on a solo research trip along a remote river canyon in Portugal. He paddles through the canyon in a slender kayak, observing birds and taking notes. Through his binoculars, he studies black storks, griffon vultures, and golden eagles. At the same time, the birds watch him. We see him through their eyes — in a bird’s-eye view, he is little more than a speck in the river, a flash of color surrounded by murky waters. Focusing on the wildlife, Fernando loses track of his surroundings and drifts into a stretch of rapids. His kayak capsizes, and he loses consciousness.
Having wandered off course from the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela, Chinese Christians Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan) come across Fernando’s body and manage to revive him. Grateful for their assistance, he agrees to help them find their way back to civilization. The women fear that the wilderness is cursed, and as the trio prepares for sleep, strange yelping sounds resound from the forest.
Fernando wakes up stripped to his underwear and artfully bound with rope — the strands lace around his neck, across his torso, and down his legs, and there is even a section securing his genitalia. He escapes, but things are only beginning to go askew. Early on, he attempts to field a call from his boyfriend, Sergio, but the rugged terrain has put him out of cellphone range. As the movie proceeds and he delves deeper into the wilderness, he seems to be losing touch with himself, as well.
Director João Pedro Rodrigues, who studied avian biology before taking up moviemaking, told that he conceived the film as a “happily blasphemous” telling of the life of St. Anthony of Padua, who was born in Lisbon and is considered a patron saint of Portugal’s capital city. Indeed, an opening title card features a quote attributed to Anthony and dated 1222, and religious imagery abounds as the movie unfolds. Among the likely blasphemous elements is a sequence of Fernando in the buff, rolling in the sand of a riverbank with an equally naked shepherd boy. While
may be an unusual story of faith, it does convey a sense of religious mystery.
The plot seems secondary to the film’s meditative visuals, including Terrence Malick-like footage of trees swaying in the wind. File this one alongside the work of Carlos Reygadas ( Japón, Silent Light) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady). The Ornithologist, like those movies, is for enthusiasts of pure cinema without boundaries.
— Jeff Acker