The Metamorphosis Of Birds


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Metamorphosis Of Birds
"For a short time, this cinematic jewel lets us travel back to when the migration of birds was a mystery to man." | Photo: Courtesy of New Directors/New Films

“What human beings can’t explain, they invent.” Catarina Vasconcelos constructs a magnificent, shimmering dreamscape around her ancestors and their enchanted existence in and with nature. This is a universe where oranges are the extension of families. The storytelling is mesmerising, both visually, shot on 16mm film by Paulo Menezes, and in regards to the poetry of the spoken language used to express all that yearning and insight. We see stamps from Senegal (thinking of Mamadou Dia’s Nafi’s Father, screening in ND/NF) and those with the profile of the Queen, and mirrors in the landscape and what a great ear ornament a seahorse makes, especially next to a pearl earring.

In The Metamorphosis of Birds (A Metamorfose dos Pássaros, a New Directors/New Films highlight and FIPRESCI Encounters winner at the Berlin Film Festival), dreams of the dead haunt little ghosts in sheets. When the dead return in your dreams, they will want a quick summary of what happened since they died. (Luis Buñuel in his memoir My Last Sigh wrote that he would like to come back just once a year after his death to read the news and catch up on the world.)

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Paternal grandfather Henrique, a Portuguese seaman, sends letters to his beloved wife Triz and their children. Jacinto, their oldest son, counts peacock feathers (73, 74, 75, 76) to form a tapestry on a red carpet. There are paintings, and dried leaves, flowers, pomegranates and persimmons and the earth for her, while Henrique at sea wonders about compassion for the ocean that has so many fishes to feed and so many waves to create. Children’s games of sinking ships on paper and a cat’s cradle with wool, Call me Ishmael, and horror tales, invented by housekeeper Zulmira, that make the little ones “afraid of the bottom of the bathtub.”

At one point, the picture frame cannot hold the children anymore and they grow up. This is a film of lists. Tender, gentle lists, like Peter Greenaway on tiptoe. Jacinto, at age twelve, knows for example the maximum age of flies (4 weeks), mice (1 year), moles (3), rabbits (10), bats (15), dogs (20), cats (25), ostriches (50) and that there was a whale of 210 and a turtle of 250 years of age. He also knows that “you can’t discover a continent already inhabited by millions of people.”

The kids make up a prayer for a dead bird to be buried in a starched white linen napkin. “Holy bird in heaven” it begins. “I know my hands better than my face” we hear in voice-over, and about how mothers are the ones preserving their children’s childhoods as relics. Little boxes with seashells and locks of hair are marked with name and date, enough to make you jealous. This seems to be the point - the reconstruction of a perfection that can only be invented in retrospect, in memory, in longing.

The word for “mother” contains the letter or phonetic sound M in most languages. The art of benevolent resurrection is practised and for a short time, this cinematic jewel lets us travel back to when the migration of birds was a mystery to man. The ancients believed that linnets turned into thrushes and cuckoos into hawks, as they are never seen at the same time. Icicles on a branch look like exquisite jewelry, illuminating the intervals of existence, as “objects have their own secret lives.”

Reviewed on: 16 Dec 2020
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The Metamorphosis Of Birds packshot
Beatriz and Henrique fall in love and get married. He goes to sea while she raises their inquisitive children. The director brings her family's story to the screen.
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Director: Catarina Vasconcelos

Writer: Catarina Vasconcelos

Starring: Manuel Rosa, João Móra, Ana Vasconcelos, Henrique Vasconcelos, Inês Campos, Catarina Vasconcelos, José Manuel Mendes, João Pedro Mamede, Cláudia Varejão, Luísa Ministro, José Maria Rosa, João Vasconcelos, Nuno Vasconcelos

Year: 2020

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: Portugal

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