The Metamorphosis of Birds is a sensual and lyrical work that recalls the old masters even as it carves out its own distinct and pleasurable path.
In the first volume of his literary magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, French writer Marcel Proust writes: “Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.” This assertion works as a solid signpost on how one might best encounter Catarina Vasconcelos’ The Metamorphosis of Birds. It’s evident from the beginning that this poetic and personal work of metafiction is concerned with the power of meticulous and sensitive observation. The film opens with an extreme close-up of eyes, and later, among other various household objects the camera captures, mirrors, magnifying glasses, and even the reflective surfaces of water play a crucial role in forming the film’s ocular discourse. Or, as it’s more precisely stated in one of many subjective voice-overs, “Objects have their own secret lives.” It’s this that the 34-year-old Portuguese director seeks to capture in her slow-burn, essayistic debut feature, using exquisitely tender 16 mm cinematography in academy-ratio fixed frames to invoke the same magical quality she sees as hidden within life’s ordinary things. Vasconcelos’ delicately lit compositions frequently suggest the quality of still-life photography or even the Flemish style of painting; her formal constructions here, whether capturing various fruits or parts of the human body or a flower’s petals, are rendered so as to reflect the full tangibility of the world — or, as another bit of narration suggests, “We observed the world as if we were inside a painting.”
With Vasconcelos and her family members handling the voice-over duties for a litany of various characters (some of which take place in different periods of the past, and alternating between first and third person), The Metamorphosis of Birds recounts (or reinvents) the familial memoirs and histories of the director’s parents and grandparents — Henrique, who spent much of his life as a mariner at sea, and his beloved wife Beatriz, who longed for his return. This narrative fodder helps the film take its eventual shape, aiding in the continuous oscillation between interior shots of domesticity (recalling a chamber piece) and grand exterior compositions, where vast oceans and fecund forests function as allegorical dimensions for Henrique and Beatriz — in the same manner, birds are identified with the family maid, Zulmira, while Catarina herself is fascinated by the mountains — and also enhancing the film’s fluid form and a revitalizing atmosphere. In some ways, Vasconcelos’ work is aesthetically reminiscent of old masters like Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, and Andrei Tarkovsky as it seeks to connect the personal facets of one’s domestic life to a more ontological universalism where all humans are “located in the intervals of existence, between the earth and the sky.” Its hybrid visual approach makes sense, then, crafting a private family scrapbook filled with generational nostalgia, but also expanding to consider the overwhelming beauty of both joy and grief and to contemplate such quintessential concepts as living, dying, reincarnation, remembrance, and the state of being in the world. Given such grand ambition, it’s perhaps not surprising that the final result of this introspective cinematic exploration is indeed nothing less than a complex love letter, one that is simultaneously rooted and celestial, sober and lyrical, palpably sensual, intellectually meditative, and, most importantly (in a Proustian sense), conceptually kinetic.
You can currently stream Catarina Vasconcelos’ The Metamorphosis of Birds on Netflix.
Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 3.