Paul Hamy in The Ornithologist (Strand Releasing)

From Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues comes this lost-in-the-woods fable. Picture a sensual version of The Call of the Wild, with some David Lynch-ian identity swapping thrown in for good measure.

Fernando (Paul Hamy) is the titular ornithologist out on a solitary mission in search of a species of endangered black storks. Kayaking down a river, he is swept away by the rapids, and his kayak is ripped in half. From there, Fernando tries to find his way out of the forest, encountering strange characters and unexplainable phenomena. (Wonder Woman isn’t the only current film featuring Amazonian women.)

João Pedro Rodrigues and writing collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata describe their film as a reimagining of the story of Saint Anthony, an important religious figure in Portuguese culture. (The peripatetic saint was born in Lisbon in the 1190s, and christened Fernando.) Each of Fernando’s encounters—two Chinese backpacking religious pilgrims; men dressed as pagan spirits; and a deaf and mute goat herder, Jesus (Xelo Cagiao)—are all stand-ins for characters and events in the story of the cherished saint. The major alteration is that Fernando/Anthony figure in this telling is a gay man. Commendably, the film is stripped of traditional Catholic views on the subject of homosexuality in favor of a much more naturalistic vibe.

Director Rodrigues, who is openly gay, has a record of films with gay themes: O Fantasma, Last Time I Saw Macao, and To Die Like a Man. While Fernando is coded as gay (his nature excursion is frequently interrupted by texts from his worrisome boyfriend, who reminds Fernando to take his medicine), this movie is actually a bit of a departure from what could be described as a gay film, as it is not exclusively about gay matters. Instead it’s an ambiguous and religious film featuring a gay protagonist.

The imagery is quite breathtaking. Much of the beginning is made up of long shots through Fernando’s binoculars, tracking different types of birds along the river. When the Chinese travelers, Fei and Lin (Han Wen and Chan Suan), are introduced, we are treated to a fast-paced slideshow of their trip’s photos, establishing the characters, as well as the place and mood. The two women, who unknowingly have hiked into northern Portugal from Spain, stumble upon the unconscious Fernando after his kayaking accident, and they nurse him back to health. After Fernando sips a strange tasting tea that they offer him, his encounter with the two devout women takes a strange and sadistic turn. The film takes viewers to another world; the woods come alive before the camera, evoking the spooky themes of the mystic and transformative aspects of nature.

The Ornithologist succeeds for its unconventional storytelling, its bravery to be steeped in metaphor. This is the kind of film you won’t be able to shake after you leave the theater, or have seen on the small screen. At least not until you get yourself back into the woods—it’s a different kind of nature film.

Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues
Written by Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata
Released by Strand Releasing
Portuguese, Mandarin, and Latin with English subtitles
Portugal/Brazil/France. 117 min. Not rated
With Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, Han Wen, and Chan Suan