The distinct individualism of João Pedro Rodrigues’ worldview is turned inward via an unflaggingly intriguing poetical riff on the life of St. Anthony of Padua in “The Ornithologist.” While possibly the director’s most accessible film to date, calling this visually striking work “accessible” doesn’t mean most audiences will fully understand Rodrigues’ delightfully meandering paths, nor appreciate his homoerotic, playfully blasphemous modernized hagiography. Religious conservatives will be as apoplectic as they were with Godard’s “Hail Mary,” but arthouse lovers, including those not always in sync with the “To Die Like a Man” helmer’s style should find much pleasure, even if they’re perplexed by what it all means.
Interpretations will be made slightly easier — but only slightly — by knowing a little about both St. Anthony, whose birth name was Fernando, and Rodrigues. That the director conflates himself with the saint by literally assuming his role towards the end shouldn’t be seen as an exercise in self-exaltation; instead, it’s a way of personalizing Anthony’s influence, perhaps akin to Egon Schiele’s “Self-Portrait as St. Sebastian,” while having fun with reshaping a historical figure’s life according to fanciful imagination. If this sounds terribly serious, think again: “The Ornithologist” is deliciously subversive and genuinely funny.
Rodrigues studied to become an ornithologist, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fernando (Paul Hamy, “On My Way”) is an ornithologist, on a field trip to research black storks in remote northern Portugal. As he watches the birds through binoculars, they too watch him, realized via terrific p.o.v. shots as if seen through the eyes of owls, or hawks, or other feathered creatures. Just as St. Anthony’s ship was blown off course, so Fernando’s kayak capsizes, and he’s found in the dense forest by a couple of Chinese Catholic pilgrims, Fei (Han Wen) and Lin (Chan Suan), themselves very off-piste on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
When Fernando is asleep, the odd women strip him to his tighty whities and tie him up so he’s bound, à la St. Sebastian; though he struggles to free himself, his sexual arousal is more than evident. He does escape, but discovers a strange ritual site, and that night sees semi-demonic creatures speaking Mirandese (an endangered language of northern Portugal). The next day Fernando finds a shepherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), and they make love on the riverbank; afterwards they get into an argument, which proves fatal for Jesus.
Narratively, the film gets even more bizarre. A Latin-speaking Amazon (performance artist Juliane Elting, whose stage moniker pays fantastic tribute to Julian Eltinge) calls Fernando by the name Anthony, and by the time he meets Jesus’ identical twin brother, Thomas, actor Hamy has been replaced by director Rodrigues. Recognizing the repurposed parallels between Fernando/Anthony and St. Anthony of Padua offers some insight into the derivation of Rodrigues’ inventiveness, but not always its meaning. So the saint’s reputation for dispelling demons, for preaching to fish, for holding the child Jesus, are re-imagined, while other Catholic stories are recalled, from Doubting Thomas to St. Anthony Abbot.
The meaning behind Rodrigues’ choices might seem more remote, but a full artist’s statement really isn’t needed since the film ultimately hones to the ageless formula of self-discovery. The forest through which Fernando/Anthony journeys, like so many forests in literature and painting, is a crucible through which the character reaches a form of enlightenment, and Rodrigues’ ability to play with religious tales and make them deliriously different yet personally meaningful (even if opaque to some) makes him one of the top standard bearers of queer cinema.
Visually, “The Ornithologist” is Rodrigues’ most classically shot film, and the first entirely lensed outdoors. Regular collaborator Rui Poças brings out the richness of the forest and river canyon in all its natural splendor, at times almost hinting at a European version of the sylvan spirit of Thai magical realism rather than the lurid spectacle of the director’s “The Last Time I Saw Macao.” Unsurprisingly given both the title and the director’s academic training, avian scenes are lovingly realized and a constant source of wonder.