This well-photographed Portuguese film belongs to what I call the “opaque religious parable” genre. Emphasis on the opaque.
The title hero, Fernando, is on a bird-watching expedition in a very scenic area of Portugal, with rushing river rapids, forest greenery and rock formations. In a phone call to his male lover, we learn he takes medication that controls an unnamed illness, possibly AIDS. He is in his thirties, bearded and athletically built.
Director Joao Pedro Rodrigues, along with co-writer Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, have adventure in store for Fernando, along with the audience. The expedition becomes perilous. He nearly drowns while kayaking in the rapids, but is saved by two Chinese women who are on some kind of religious quest. They allude to Saint Anthony of Padua. Fernando becomes their prisoner, and they bind him with ropes. He frees himself during the night, and overhears that they intended to castrate him. He takes what remains of his gear, but finds that his medication is missing. Now in ragged clothes, without food, he survives by living off of forest vegetation. All the while, he records his sightings of birds on his phone, but poor reception makes it impossible for him to call for help.
Then he meets a young goatherd who is deaf and dumb. The goatherd writes that his name is Jesus with a stick in the dirt. The goatherd gives him food and water, and they have sex. But Fernando finds his sweatshirt among the goatherd’s things. He thinks that the goatherd robbed the Chinese women and that he has his medication. They argue. The goatherd pulls a knife on him, but Fernando kills him in a violent struggle.
He continues on his way, sleeping without shelter. But he is awakened by the shouts of revelers who are dressed in obscene costumes. He hides from them. They drink, chanting that they cannot be stopped, and will dominate all. They kill a wild animal and consume its innards.
He resumes his wanderings, and finds shelter in an abandoned church. He is awakened by a dove inside his tent. The bird has a broken wing, which he binds with a splint. He goes back to sleep. But he awakens to find the bird on the roof of the church. He tells the bird, with a smile, that its wing wasn’t broken after all. The bird follows him on his journeys, which infuriates him. He throws his cell phone at it, but the bird will not desert him.
Then, at another abandoned building, he finds more of his gear, including his medication. He hears a message on his phone from the Chinese women, who say they will meet him again soon. He tosses his medication in the river.
The climactic scene has him finding one of the revelers, apparently dead, on the ground. He discovers it is the goatherd he had killed. Fernando sucks the wound from the knife, and the goatherd is returned to life. But he tells Fernando that his name is Tomas, and that he has been searching for his brother, a goatherd, who is named Jesus. Tomas says that he was wounded playing with knives with the other revelers, which was how he died. Fernando tells him that his name is Anthony. Then the reveler sees that Fernando has his brother’s knife. He believes that Fernando, now Anthony, has killed his brother, and he slits his throat. Fernando, bleeding profusely, raises his arms to the skies.
For the end credits, the film cuts to Padua, a modern city. Fernando is smiling and walking hand in hand with the goatherd. The Chinese women see him from across the street, and wave. A rock song with vaguely religious lyrics comes on the soundtrack, and plays over the credits.
I think that song tells the whole story. It jars so completely with the tone of the rest of the film that you can’t ignore it. The acting in the film is flat, unshaded. There are no dramatic climaxes. Symbols fly in and out of view like birds. Characters suddenly flip without explanation, as when Fernando tosses his medication. Yet, with no clear sign from the filmmaker about what perspective he has on this – even on whether he really believes in God – a song tries to sum it all up with puerile nonsense. I think the song betrays a fundamental lack of seriousness by the filmmaker. The events in this rambling tale never cohere into a single theme, leaving the audience stranded.
Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana also ends with a song, a rocker called “Shake Your Cares Away”. Yet, more than half a century later, that film retains potency. It is a nasty, stinging bitch-slap of the Catholic church, and the rock song caps it all off brilliantly.
Rodrigues seems almost as lost as his title character. He has made a pretty, watchable film with enough mystery to keep us diverted for nearly two hours. Although some critics have noted that the story parallels Saint Anthony’s life, that connection demands some prior knowledge by the audience. I admit to having none. But anyway, the connection is not enough to give the film a reason for having been made. The filmmakers have so muffled its tone that I could never be sure how I was supposed to appreciate it. So when it was over, it almost seemed like a joke on the audience.