The Metamorphosis of Birds (2020) dir. Catarina Vasconcelos

by Igor Fishman

When I was growing up I kept a memory box for keepsakes. Being sentimental and shy meant each trip outside warranted souvenirs. These could be little things: a drugstore receipt or a random business card would do, anything to keep the memory intact. After enough time revisiting this little trove over the years, even a coffee shop rewards card takes on a nostalgic air. Catarina Vasconcelos understands this inclination, this pull to curate objects and form histories. Her film, The Metamorphosis of Birds (2020) is itself a memory box, a playful docu-narrative hybrid that retells the story of her family, and is itself an act of storage and romantic reclamation. She uses this collection of keepsakes—from peacock feathers to ships-in-bottles, paintings and pomegranates, actors and family members—to guide us through the tapestry of her past. It’s a pure expression of nostalgia, as Vasconcelos winds the histories of her grandparents into her own narrative, creating a multifaceted reflection wherein she communes with her father and grandfather – the three of them united together in longing for two women, two mothers, who are gone but whose emphatic footprints on their corner of the world remain.

The film opens when a somber-voiced Henrique (Vascanelos’s grandfather) requests that Joaquín Sorolla’s painting, The Mother—a woman and child ensconced in fluffy white bed sheets—be hung on the wall of his nursing-home room. He explains that he has always imagined that the mother of the painting was his late wife Beatriz (Vascanelos’s grandmother), and his narration reads like a letter to her directly. This opening sets the tone of the film, the soft 16mm capturing acute compositions of objects laid center frame and colored by the poetic narrations that run like an undercurrent. Questions of fact and fiction melt beneath the contours of Vasconcelos’s dreamy construction. Just as we know that the woman in Sorolla’s work is not Beatriz, we too can assume that the people we see in the film, the stories they tell, the voices we hear, might themselves be representations, and yet this distance from ‘the real’ doesn’t detract from the film’s power. Even the credits refuse to clarify who’s who, confronting those hoping to probe past the boundaries of the film with a running list of names; family members and actors are entwined in the closing scroll.

Getting a bit of background on Vasconcelos’s story helps open up the film’s enigmas. Having learned that Henrique intends to burn his correspondences with Beatriz, Vasconcelos sets out to excavate as much as she can about the grandmother she never knew. In doing this she captures a portrait through the eyes of both her husband and her son (Vasconcelos’s grandfather and father respectively) and mirrors their longing with her own grief having lost her own mother at the tender age of 17. The guiding philosophy of her approach is made explicit later on: “what human beings can’t explain, they invent,” and so deprived of the opportunity to read these letters, she sets out to invent them, bringing her grandparents’ inner worlds to startling life. This invented history strays from even established facts, going so far as to rename her father—who in reality is also named Henrique, but for the sake of clarity is given the name Jacinto here.

Vasconcelos’s background in fine arts rather than film makes its presence felt far beyond the paintings that appear throughout. Shots are framed like portraits and still lifes, forming tight compositions in the 4:3 frame, but these eventually give way to a cascade of landscapes in the film’s second half which takes on a more naturalistic tone once it escapes the bounds of the past, and approaches the present. Most fascinating is the tension which forms between stillness and motion in these dynamics: water and earth. Vasconcelos might draw inspiration from paintings, but she doesn’t shy from the cinematic. In an aching early shot evoking Terence Davies, we watch the sunlight slink its way across the span of a couch, momentarily illuminating strips of checkerboard pattern and leaving nothing but shadow in its wake. In another moment, Vasconcelos employs a trick that goes back to the Lumières, using reverse motion to film a hand reattaching leaves to a branch; a beautiful encapsulation of the project, as she journeys through the family tree, rebuilding it leaf by leaf, healing through film. In one of the most memorable scenes, the screen turns a blinding white, and a photograph emerges of Vasconcelos as a baby held by her own mother in the hospital bed—the emerging whiteness mirrors the Sorolla painting—the details coming into focus like a developing polaroid, the blinding light, and fixed stillness serves as a reminder of her mother’s untimely passing. This image sears, ripping through the finely constructed veil of the film’s fantasies.

This tension between stillness and motion is not just expressed formally through static shots of the household or the roiling ocean but runs as a narrative undercurrent as well. Henrique—who is a sailor—heads off to sea, leaving Beatriz at home to care for their children, and so her rooted household parallels his untethered ocean, and the central metaphor presents the children as birds, growing until they can soar into the air, into a world unlike either of these poles. However, metaphors are never cut and dry for Vasconcelos. In her preceding short: Metaphor or Sadness Inside Out (2013), she entwines another familial history with the political upheavals of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and ends with an evocation of an elephant. She stands behind this cardboard mammal as if challenging us to suction the film into this single metaphor—the elephant with its colloquial tethers to memory, death, and ritual itself becomes a nesting doll for the flurry of metaphors that have come before. This same impressionistic flow is found here, and so when the film explicitly alludes to the ‘metamorphosis of birds’, the metaphor becomes a memory box for the flock of ideas to perch on.

The story goes that the ancients, misunderstanding bird migration, had explained it away as a single species of bird morphing into different forms with the seasons: cuckoos transform into thrushes, into hawks, etc. This historical bit of invention mirrors Vasconcelos’s familial excavations and highlights the flaws inherent to all histories given the ease with which we invent explanations. In one powerful sequence, the brutal history of Portugal’s imperialism is laid bare in postage stamps from Africa that through the passage of time change as seismic revolutions transform colonies into independent states. Vasconcelos lingers on the shifting perceptions of Portugal’s colonialism noting how the new generation sees these evils anew, while the older one has grown complacent, accepting it as a neutral flow of history. This digression pulls us back to the personal, and forces the question of whether the process of retelling her family story permanently alters the family history itself. Each time we open the memory box, to pick up a little souvenir, we permanently alter it, amending it with a renewed nostalgia that misses the prior acts of remembering, just as much as the moment itself. Vasconcelos packages these changes, large and small, personal and geopolitical, into her neat metaphor of Metamorphosis

In the final third, the film escapes from the tight interiors and dusty photographs to the wide expanses of mountains and shots of the sun setting over an infinite ocean. At one point a literal curtain opens to reveal the rocky distance, putting a firm point on this transition. It is in this final chapter of the film that we begin to tether the past to the present connecting Vasconcelos’s project to her personal grief over the loss of her mother. This theme paired with the painterly expanse before us reminded me of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother & Son (1997), wherein a son walks his dying mother through empty landscapes as if time itself was falling into the gravity of the love shared between the two. Vasconcelos herself becomes the subject in this closing section. Having arrived at a toppled tree growing sideways, she tries to lift it, attempting to set it right but powerless in the face of nature, much like how the son in Sokurov’s film carries his mother through windy impressionistic valleys, a journey brimming with futility and pain.

Another striking reference point can be found in the work of Chantal Akerman. Vasconcelos’s culmination finds us setting adrift into the sprawling waters, and recalls the striking ending of News From Home (1977) where the ferry leaves New York behind in a shroud of fog, serving as a tentative goodbye. Meanwhile, the arid landscapes call to mind the heightened juxtapositions of No Home Movie (2015), where Akerman inserts footage of an empty desert or a lone tree quivering in the storm to capture the emptiness and pain she feels being away from her mother. This final chapter reveals the beating heart of the film, the thread of grief that penetrates each and every frame, the longing that pulls the present to the past, and shows how the act of destruction (the burning of the letters) is met with a defiant act of creation (the film itself). Isn’t the phoenix rising from its ashes the most famous metamorphic bird? In the films’ cascade of images and swirling metaphors, there is one that sticks with me above all others. Vasconcelos stands before a large tree, and when she moves aside, we see a shock of red on the bark: a wound, the thought of blood comes quick, but looking closer at this burgundy scab reveals a nest of flowers. Beneath the sophisticated rhythms and finely composed tableaus, hides one last metamorphosis: the rooted hurt through which her art blossoms.

Igor Fishman is a writer and film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find more of his work on his site Lost Asterisk. [Twitter]

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