Early on in “The Ornithologist,” an entrancingly strange wilderness odyssey from the Portuguese writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues, a handsome explorer named Fernando (Paul Hamy) awakens to find himself stripped to his underwear and tied to a tree. His bulging tighty-whities notwithstanding, Fernando’s immobilized, semi-nude form can’t help but evoke the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, an event that inspired numerous Renaissance paintings as well as an explicitly homoerotic retelling in Derek Jarman’s 1976 film, “Sebastiane.”
The influence of “Sebastiane” can be felt to some extent here, but while Rodrigues’ film blurs the boundaries between spirituality and sexuality with similar recklessness and ardor, it has an imaginative playfulness all its own. Happily, Fernando is not met with a hail of arrows. After waiting several hours, during which he is taunted by his captors, he manages to free himself and escape — an apt image for a film that proceeds to shake off the constraints of traditional storytelling with similar patience and purpose.
Gorgeous, transfixing and entirely lucid even in its gently encroaching surrealism, “The Ornithologist” charts Fernando’s personal evolution over the course of a bird-watching expedition that takes several unexpectedly harrowing and hilarious turns, including but not limited to the tree incident. While searching for rare birds along a river in northern Portugal, he steers his canoe into rough waters and washes up unconscious on shore, where he is rescued by two Chinese women, Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan), who are trying to find their way to the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela.
Fei and Ling are both devout Christians (pilgrims, as they call themselves), and it may well be a measure of Rodrigues’ skepticism that he suggests their Good Samaritanism is not to be trusted. Some time later, with no map or cellphone service to guide him and only a few supplies, Fernando tries to find his way back to civilization. Along the way, he will stumble on a bizarre campfire ritual performed by dancers in costume, enjoy a roll in the sand with a cute goatherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), and bear continual witness to the mystery and majesty of the natural world around him.
Known on the film-festival circuit for his hot-and-cold anatomies of gay desire (“O Fantasma,” “To Die Like a Man”), Rodrigues, who co-wrote the script with his regular collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata, has made the most approachable road/head trip imaginable. “The Ornithologist” is both an opaque narrative and a deeply inviting one. Even as the film commences a series of radical formal and dramatic mutations, you are held rapt by the steadiness of the camera’s gaze and the sublime, sun-dappled beauty that it invariably discovers. (The superb cinematographer is Rui Poças, who also shot Miguel Gomes’ luminous, black-and-white “Tabu.”)
That Fernando is meant to be a contemporary stand-in for the 13th-century Franciscan priest Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things (and a figure of particular historical and cultural significance in Portugal), is helpful though by no means necessary for the viewer to be quickly pulled in. Even within his free-form style, Rodrigues has worked out the story with rigorous cleverness: Fernando’s canoe accident recalls the winds that blew Anthony’s Portugal-bound ship off-course, landing him in Sicily, where his celebrated Italian ministry would begin. The legend that Anthony once preached to the fish swimming in the Marecchia river is duly enacted here. (More amusingly, Fernando’s brown hooded sweatshirt evokes a friar’s garb.)
Not every one of Rodrigues’ inventions has a clear biographical equivalent. Those expecting a straightforward (let alone reverent) portrait of a beloved, God-fearing visionary will be duly scandalized by the film’s languid eroticism and cheerful blasphemies. You may be hard-pressed, as I still am after two viewings, to decode the significance of the three half-naked huntresses who show up on horseback toward the story’s close, the eerie resurrection that takes place in a darkened wood, or the unsettling ruptures of mood, identity and the proverbial fourth wall that take place as the movie draws toward its weirdly charming close.
“There are certain things we shouldn’t try to understand,” a character notes at one point. “They come to pass and we must believe them.” That’s an excellent methodology for how to approach “The Ornithologist,” though the film supplies still another in the form of the various birds we see — sometimes soaring across the frame and sometimes isolated for a few moments in the lenses of Fernando’s binoculars, which become a transparent metaphor for the act of moviegoing itself.
We keep watching, not for the revelation of what it all means, but for the simple, inexplicable beauty of what it is.
(In Portuguese, Mandarin and Latin with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles