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The Metamorphosis of Birds review - picture perfect | reviews, news & interviews

The Metamorphosis of Birds review - picture perfect

The Metamorphosis of Birds review - picture perfect

Catarina Vasconcelos's debut feature is a reverie that makes you want to dream forever

Catarina's father Jacinto hides beneath the leaves

How do you make a film about death, love and loss that avoids being sentimental, maudlin or pretentious? Take your cue from Portuguese artist Catarina Vasconcelos.

Her debut feature, The Metamorphosis of Birds unfolds as a series of exquisite vignettes. Each frame is a masterpiece composed with the beauty and exactitude of a Dutch still life. Meanwhile, on voice over, we are treated to a poetic meditation on grief.

In close-up, we see her grandfather Henrique (José Manuel Mendes) telling his dead wife Beatriz that he has sold the house and moved to an old people’s home. He needs to set himself free, he says, so as to die and be reunited with her.

Catarina never knew her grandmother, who died before she was born and existed for her only as a photograph on the sideboard of her childhood home. So what follows is a fictionalised account of Beatriz’ married life. Various recollections and suppositions paint a picture of a couple united by love and separated by water.The Metamorphosis of Birds reviewAs a sea captain, Henrique was sometimes away for years at a time, leaving Beatriz to bring up their six children. The marriage was kept alive by the letters they wrote and the mementos they exchanged. Before he died, though, Henrique burnt all their letters so the words of love and longing we hear are Catarina’s own.

Her images are so imaginative and so powerful they stay with you long after the poetry of the lines has faded. Overwhelmed with sadness by their mother’s death, Beatriz’ children sit frozen into immobility. Her son Jacinto describes their grief as like living inside a painting: “We were a still life,” he recalls. And if it weren’t for the smoke wafting upwards from a cigarette, you’d think the accompanying shot of the siblings transfixed by sorrow was a photograph. Sitting at the piano, her daughter Teresa is unable to play a note, while the sound of piano music indicates that, elsewhere, life goes on regardless.

When Catarina was just 17, her mother Ana died. The grief she and her father shared brought them closer together and made her aware that her father had been similarly young when Beatriz died. So rather than dwelling on her own story – which is summed up in a moving photograph of her mother seeing her for the very first time – she pays tribute, in the second half of the film, to the endless generations of mothers that have lived and loved and all the children left behind to mourn their passing. Like an incantation, she whispers “the mothers and the mothers’ mothers and the mothers’ mothers’ mothers and the mothers’ mothers’ mothers' mothers”, until grief, she realised “was nothing new. It was actually pretty ordinary”.The Metamorphosis of Birds reviewShe dreams that Ana returns to visit her 15 years after her death, insisting that she’s only been away on business. Catarina describes showing her the things she has missed out on – like how to use a mobile phone and access the Internet – while, on screen, we see her carefully fixing fallen leaves back onto their stems, proof that it is possible to turn back time and restore life.

“It is said that after being away for two months, Bach returned home to find that his wife Maria Barbara had died. Drowning in sadness, he sat at the kitchen table and stared at the walls and empty house around him. Afterwards he grabbed a piece of paper and wrote the Chaconne for violin. The Chaconne was made to invoke the dead and also to awaken them.”

Spoken by Catarina’s father, these lines also sum up The Metamorphosis of Birds, a film that may not succeed in awakening the dead, but is every bit as beautiful and as moving as Bach’s music.

Her images are so imaginative and so powerful they stay with you long after the poetry of the lines has faded

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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