Berlinale 2020 review: The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

Beatriz, nickname Triz, falls in love with Henrique. She is 21, he is a dapper naval officer. They get married, and while Henrique is at sea for long stretches, Beatriz stays at home to take care of their six children. Jacinto (‘hyacinth’) is the oldest one, so named because Beatriz loves flowers and plants. He dreams of turning into a bird and soaring through the skies. One day Beatriz dies unexpectedly.

This sounds like a short synopsis for perhaps a gut-wrenching drama or maybe a story that takes a flight of fancy, but it is actually the story of the family of director Catarina Vasconcelos. Jacinto is her father, and Beatriz her grandmother. Beatriz died when Jacinto was young, and Vasconcelos’ mother also died when she was 17. When her mother died she had the loss of a parent in common with her father and their relationship deepened. They found each other in the absence of the word ‘mother’. In The Metamorphosis of Birds, daughter and father work through this loss as, in voice-over, they recount the memory of Beatriz.

When her father told her that her grandfather Henrique wanted to destroy the correspondence he and Beatriz had had during his years at sea, Vasconcelos tried to salvage their letters. Through those letters Beatriz came to life for her. She started talking to her father and uncles about Beatriz to form an image of the grandmother who had always been just that picture of a tall woman that was on a cupboard in Jacinto’s home.

Shot in Academy ratio, The Metamorphosis of Birds visually adheres to the time period it’s set in: the grainy cinematography, shots often not fully in focus, lends some of the scenes a feel as if they were excerpts from family home videos. These are mixed with shots of flowers and plants, and imaginative and more theatrical shots of Henrique at sea or Jacinto at home. A recurring use of mirrors signals Vasconcelos’ idea of looking back at the past to look at ourselves. The frequent images and references to flora and fauna, both so beloved by Beatriz and Jacinto, infuse the film with deep colors to juxtapose against Henrique’s scenes at sea: the happy family life versus the lone man out there, somewhere. On top of all this is the poetic correspondence between Beatriz and Henrique, as relayed by the director and her father, even if they are not their literal words.

A film about mothers and about memories, about reliving the past to not forget it. When we forget a person who has died, they die for a second time, and this is what Vasconcelos tries to prevent with The Metamorphosis of Birds. Almost inevitably this results in a very personal and intimate film. Beatriz’ and Henrique’s life, in which they were so often apart, is already infused with a certain melancholy and nostalgia, and Vasconcelos’ treatment of the story and how she presents it only strengthens this feeling.

There is a marked change in the film when it reaches Beatriz’ death. The melancholy and poetic tone of the film intensifies as Vasconcelos and her father through their spoken words come closer to each other. In the film’s most emotional scene a photograph of Beatriz slowly solidifies as if being developed in situ, while father and daughter recount the day of her death, and it pierces the heart. The Metamorphosis of Birds shows how the passage of time can make memories fade away, and cautions that we should keep them alive. The memories of this beautiful film certainly will stay alive for some time.

Photo copyright: Primeira Idade