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New to MUBI - THE METAMORPHOSIS OF BIRDS

THE METAMORPHOSIS OF BIRDS review
A portrait of a Portuguese family history.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Catarina Vasconcelos

Starring: Manuel Rosa, João Móra, Ana Vasconcelos, Henrique Vasconcelos, Inês Melo Campos, Catarina Vasconcelos

The Metamorphosis of Birds poster

More than a mere film, Catarina VasconcelosThe Metamorphosis of Birds would be more accurately described as a perfectly executed labour of love, a visual scrapbook of memory, instances in time and abstract imagery of devastating beauty. Nominally a biopic of Vasconcelos’ Lusitanic family, specifically her grandfather Henrique and his wife, Triz, and the familial influence they have upon their descendants, the film is a meditative kaleidoscope which uses different textures, styles and witty camera trickery to express saudade; an exclusively Portuguese expression which delineates  ‘a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia’, often for something or somebody which is far away.

The Metamorphosis of Birds review

Henrique was a sailor, who was at sea for extended periods of time, and the couple would communicate their love and longing via letters that traversed the globe in the same way as birds in migration, eventually finding their way to heart and home. These letters -sincere, philosophical, devoted - form the basis of The Metamorphosis of Birds’ narrative of thrilling visuals and uplifting emotion. Correspondingly, the consuming sensations of Vasconcelos’ work require more than a mere review: prepare for a hagiography.

The Metamorphosis of Birds review

Just as it is difficult to categorise or even describe the experience of The Metamorphosis of Birds’ mercurial arrangement, it is also almost impossible to discuss the sensation of watching it without lapsing wholly into superlatives. But here goes... Using an intimate Academy ratio (mmmmmm), the film opens with talking heads; intimate portrait shots of family members (including Vasconcelos) which outlay the lineage and Henrique’s situation. The various point of views blend into one another, traversing time and space: what is one moment anticipated or feared, is in the next a bittersweet memory. The central motif is time, and it’s inexorable passing. As voiceovers compose the soundtrack, there is tight imagist poetry of objects - a magnifying glass, trinkets upon shelves, a dead bird - which are woven into the fabric of the film, inextricable from life experience. The Metamorphosis of Birds’ transcendentalism even extends to the beautiful synchronicity of Triz’s name, which is homophonic of trees, and which, along with the delicate creatures that alight upon their branches, provide the abiding metaphors of Vasconcelos’ thesis.

The Metamorphosis of Birds review

This is the sort of film where any sequence of a minute or so contains more riveting beauty and ravishing poetry than most other pictures manage in a full running time (this is not a slight on cinema in general, more a rueful observation that The Metamorphosis of Birds is such an exceptional movie). My notes, scribbled down during hasty pauses, runneth over - at one point a character wishes for a heart ‘as tall as the treetops so that, from afar, I can always follow the flight of my children who are not afraid of the wind’ (try thinking of someone you love who is not near enough to you, and then try to read that quote aloud without getting a lump in your throat!). At another, a character ruminates in grief that ‘we were a still life. We observed the world as if we were inside a painting, while outside life insisted on carrying on’. Aside from an encapsulation of grief, this statement perhaps also pertains to Vasconcelos herself, whose art, as expansive and explorative as it is, is yet by its nature limited as it cannot bring people back, and only represent events, a bittersweet artifice which necessarily involves subjective conjecture. In the final reel we discover that Henrique’s letters were burned as part of his dying wishes.

The Metamorphosis of Birds is on MUBI UK now.



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