A Subtle Tale About Family Treasures, Vertical Plants and Maritime Miracles

in 70th Berlinale Berlin International Film Festival

by Ana Sturm

Encounters, the newly established Berlinale competition section, which aims – in the words of Berlinale’s artistic director Carlo Chatrian – to become “a mirror of the 21st century”, brought a handful of visually daring and thematically diverse films that strive to redefine more traditional and conventional forms of filmmaking. There was The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin), an eight hour meditation on life in rural Japan; Victor Kossakovsky’s heartfelt ode to farm animals, Gunda; Khavn’s and Alexander Kluge’s borderline crazy depiction of ancient myth, Orphea; and the existentialistic, painstakingly crafted animation Kill It and Leave This Town (Zabij to i wyjedz z tego miasta). In the eclectic mix, there was also a little, dreamlike film titled The Metamorphosis of Birds (A Metamorfose dos Pasaros).

This tender, poetic and deeply personal debut, elegantly shot on 16mm film, was created by the remarkably talented Portuguese author Catarina Vasconcelos and produced by Portugal’s Primeira Idade, an independent boutique company managed by Joana Gusmão and Pedro Fernandes. The Metamorphosis of Birds is an elusive and intangible work of art. Carried by stunningly crafted visuals, the intimate thoughts of the director’s family members and by captivatingly melodic sounds of Portuguese language, the film drifts between the documentary and fiction form, blurring the lines between reality and imagination. Vasconcelos thematically and visually builds on the elements she already developed in her 2014 short film Metaphor, or Sadness Inside Out (Metafora ou a Tristeza Virada do Avesso) which she made during her master’s degree course in Visual Communication at the London’s Royal College of Art.

The film is divided into two parts. The story begins with Beatriz and Henrique, the author’s grandparents, who loved each other dearly, but were torn apart by the vastness of the ocean. Henrique was a naval officer and would spend long periods of time at sea. Beatriz, on the other hand, feared the sea and stayed at home where she took care of their six children. She was also very intimately connected to the earth and had a special link with nature, with plants and birds. The Metamorphosis of Birds thus also interplays a marvellous appreciation of the natural world—the changing seasons, the warmth of the sun and the shape of the moon, the vibrant colours of fruit, the ever-greens of plants, the verticality of trees in its images. If the first part of the film is more linear and chronologically traces Beatriz’s life till her early death in 1984, the second part delicately sprouts from Beatriz’s legacy; it takes on a timeless quality and has a more emotional and associative logic to it. Although Beatriz passed away, she comes back to life through her children’s tales about her and through the director’s own imagination.

The Metamorphosis of Birds is grounded in tangible emotions, gently sifting through first-hand letters and intimate memories of director’s ancestors as Vasconcelos mediates between juxtapositions of a man and a woman, a mother and her children, love and loss. Family is the heart and soul of this picture as the artist’s vivid vision evokes the hidden margins in which family heirlooms and mysteries dwell. Although immensely personal, film also freely swirls on the wings of imagination and some well-known and outstanding art references. There are evident traces of Varda’s visual playfulness and fragile, intricate elements of Joseph Cornell assemblages, a nod to the ‘Spanish master of light’ Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida and to the literary mastery of the novel “Moby Dick”. In her debut film, Vasconcelos insightfully outlines an imaginative new home for all of the lost, renegotiated and rediscovered fragments, histories, ghosts, secrets, memories, sentiments, images, words and sounds from her own, her family’s and her country’s pasts.

Ana Sturm
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Karsten Kastelan