Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues has called The Ornithologist, which follows a lone bird expert in a remote northern part of the country, an “adventure film.” It’s a genre he fantastically destabilizes to encompass martyrdom, transmigration of the soul, and wild revelers cavorting in Mirandese, a nearly extinct language spoken in his country and one of five heard in this invigorating shape-shifter.
The Ornithologist, Rodrigues’ fifth feature, which he co-wrote with João Rui Guerra da Mata (his longtime creative collaborator and romantic partner), opens with an epigraph from Saint Anthony of Padua: “Whoever approached the Spirit will feel its warmth, hence his heart will be lifted up to new heights.” The holy figure has served as a muse for Rodrigues before: His 2012 short Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day puckishly imagines young celebrants, strung out from the bacchanals held in Portugal every June 12 to commemorate the patron saint of Lisbon, roaming the empty, silent capital streets as a small army of zombies.
The exalted being is much less an abstraction in The Ornithologist; here the saint is embodied in flesh at least twice. In his first incarnation, he is Fernando (Paul Hamy), the movie’s fowl-focused protagonist, first seen swimming languidly in a river. He returns to shore to take a call from his solicitous boyfriend and to record notes on some nesting grebes. Often seen through binoculars, the birds, with their beautiful rust and indigo plumage, are filmed patiently, lovingly. All flora and fauna, in fact, receive similar adoration in this tale of metempsychosis — likewise the fjords and forests of far-flung corners of Portugal, all majestically rendered in widescreen by Rui Poças, Rodrigues’ regular cinematographer.
Fernando’s unconventional profession reflects the filmmaker’s personal history: Before enrolling in film school, Rodrigues had studied to be an ornithologist. The autobiographical elements become more pronounced as the movie proceeds. The voice of Hamy, a French actor, was dubbed by the director himself; intermittently operating as a surrogate for his leading man in fleeting segments, Rodrigues, by film’s end, assumes Hamy’s role entirely.
It’s a strange, enchanting kind of doubling, a not uncommon device in Rodrigues’ filmography. Two Drifters (2005), for example, features a fantastic instance of gender reassignment (and also further demonstrates the director’s keen interest in little-discussed occupations): A statuesque woman who works as a roller-skating supermarket price checker becomes convinced she’s carrying the baby of a dead gay guy, whose body she later assumes.
Though full of mysteries and, like all of Rodrigues’ work, consistently unpredictable from scene to scene, The Ornithologist may be the director’s most conventional narrative, tracking Fernando’s escapades after his kayak capsizes in the rapids. He’s rescued by a pair of Chinese Christians, blood-licking crypto-lesbos who’ve lost their way on their trek to Santiago de Compostela, the famous pilgrimage site in northwestern Spain. The seemingly benevolent young women turn out to be sapphic sadists — a jokey riff on the killer lesbians of bygone exploitation pictures — trussing Fernando to a tree after doping his campfire tea the night before. The birdman’s bondage, immediately calling to mind tableaux of Saint Sebastian, showcases Rodrigues’ talent for X-rated impieties: A crotch close-up reveals that Fernando, a holy man by proxy, might be turned on by his captivity, his hard-on straining against his BVDs and the rope.
The Honcho-style blasphemy deepens as Fernando — freed from the cords and increasingly exhibiting the supernatural skills affiliated with Saint Anthony, such as the ability to find lost items — enjoys an al fresco fuck (and a violent tussle) with a deaf shepherd named … Jesus (Xelo Cagiao). Like his namesake, the herdsman will also be resurrected, returning late in the film as Tomé, Jesus’ identical twin brother. Both siblings have a gash in their torso, which Fernando slowly, sensually probes with his index finger, mirroring the action of Caravaggio’s 1601-02 painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.
Beyond the religious — or sacrilegious — signs and symbols, The Ornithologist abounds with pagan rituals and mythological figures. The Mirandese-speaking carousers Fernando encounters in the woods are caretos, flamboyantly costumed men frenziedly re-creating the rites of long-ago fertility cults. Later, topless huntresses — latter-day descendants of Diana? — converse with the birdwatcher in Latin.
All of these outlandish characters further boost an already dynamic, oddly joyful movie. But none offers quite the jolt of Fernando/Hamy’s complete transformation in The Ornithologist’s final minutes to the mortal who created him. “I’m no longer the man I used to be,” Rodrigues, cloaked in a burnoose, says in the guise of Saint Anthony. The line — or at least the sentiment behind it — recalls a lyric from a saudade sung by the main character, a middle-aged transwoman slowly being poisoned by the silicone leaking from her breast implants, at the end of Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009): “Oh, how I’d like to live in the plural/The singular is worse than bad.” Like the unorthodox dramatis personae he’s constructed over the past three decades, Rodrigues demands multitudes for himself.