Time Enough at Last
By Clara Miranda Scherffig
The Metamorphosis of Birds
Dir. Catarina Vasconcelos, Portugal, no distributor
During this moment of screen stagnation, Catarina Vasconcelos’s The Metamorphosis of Birds is a breath of fresh air. After premiering at the 70th Berlinale’s new section Encounters, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film, and following a year of festival presentations, the film played last month as part of the rescheduled online edition of New Directors/New Films. The debut feature of Vasconcelos—who was born in Lisbon in 1986—follows the director’s family history in three fluid acts, focusing first on her grandparents Enrique and Beatriz; then on their children and especially on her father, Jacinto; and finally on her relationship with her own parents, dedicating particular attention to the death of her mother when she was 17. Family ties, life cycles, memory and grief offer the viewer a superficial grid for orientation. Rather than the bigger picture, however, the film alights on details that allow us to navigate such rich and porous material.
Some members of Vasconcelos’s family appear as actors, playing younger versions of presently older relatives. The long credit list of voice performers includes Vasconcelos herself and her father, other family members, and trained actors. Personal items such as letters, photographs, and audio recordings are shared, as are reproductions of known paintings; gestures borrowed from day-to-day activities are reenacted in close-up, as if they were animated props. “Objects have their inner secrets,” utters one of the many voices that comprise the narration, the one element unifying the film's fragmented nature. Yet despite its arrangement of miscellany, The Metamorphosis of Birds is a marvelously coherent work of intimate nonfiction, a documentary that unfolds idiosyncratically, like a dream.
In interviews, Vasconcelos explains that her idea for the film—which draws from her short film Metaphor or Sadness Inside Out from 2014—came about while she was living in London to complete a master’s degree in Visual Communications at the Royal College of Art. For her, as for many other Southern Europeans, the 2008 economic crisis gave rise to questions of national identity, bringing about new and old ideas of homeland, family, history, and sense of future. The mnemonic journey carried out by the film, extremely personal yet specifically Lusitanian, relates to works by other filmmakers who artistically came of age as the crisis hit their countries. Spanish director Luis Lopez Carrasco's The Year of Discovery (2020) or Italian filmmaker Luca Ferri's Pierino (2018), for instance, share with Vasconcelos’s film a twofold cinematic approach. On the one hand, these titles aim to explore a national past or its cultural habits, reflecting such retrospection on the formal level, employing analog recording devices: The Metamorphosis of Birds is shot in 16mm, whereas The Year of Discovery was filmed on Hi8 videocam recorder, and Pierino on VHS. At the same time, this ambition to connect the personal and the political spheres within the present reveals a tension directed towards the future that goes beyond geographical borders.
Another spark for the film came when Vasconcelos learned that her grandfather Enrique intended to burn the letters he had exchanged with his wife (who died before the director was born). Adding to the family mystery is the rediscovery of a vinyl recording from the late 1950s, in which Jacinto, his siblings, and Beatriz sent greetings to the father, a sailor who spent much of his time away at sea. The correspondence, read aloud, constitutes a considerable portion of the film’s script, which is intertwined with passages from literary texts—Moby Dick and Noemi Jaffe's O que os cegos estão sonhando—and classical music excerpts, such as Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major. In voicing intimate epistolary material, and by using it as a structural element, The Metamorphosis of Birds taps into a long, inexhaustible tradition of auto-ethnographic films that range from Chantal Akerman's News from Home to Trinh T. Minh-ha's Reassemblage to Sofia Bohdanowicz's MS Slavic 7 or Point and Line to Plane. Moreover, thinking about Bohdanowicz’s oeuvre highlights the connection between Vasconcelos’s documentary and that “subgenre” of auto-fiction explored by female filmmakers in the last decade. Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir, Carla Simón's Summer 1993, Anna Odell's The Reunion, and The Wonders by Alice Rohrwacher (the poster for Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro might well have been an inspiration for that of The Metamorphosis of Birds) all mold their makers’ biographies into filmic material with a generous, demurred approach. In spite of the overlap between subject and object of inquiry, these films are far from navel-gazing, and, just like Metamorphosis, capitalize on idiosyncratic details to channel a universally meaningful vision.
Even considering these references, one shouldn’t situate Vasconcelos’s debut exclusively within a female constellation. Portrayed at various stages of his life, the director’s father, Jacinto, acts as a sort of hinge between different epochs. To aid the time-traveling experience and the mimetic immersion, Vasconcelos has created a hyper-sensorial film. The use of 16mm thickens and animates the texture even when it displays still lifes, calling to mind Luigi Ghirri’s photographs of maps and landscapes or Haris Epaminonda’s collages. The sound design, by Adriana Bolito, together with the key Foley work by Teresa Niza Braga, lends the symmetrical composition of most frames profundity and liveliness. Above all, it is the retrieval of long-forgotten objects and outdated pastimes that give the film its almost physical warmth. A battleship game drawn on paper, a “cat's cradle,” playing with mirrors, a seahorse shell, dried leaves in a book, peacock feathers, cork puppets: these are strangely familiar tokens of a bygone era, once treasured and ritualized because of their almost supernatural appearance. Wrapped in their magical realism, these mundane gadgets fill Jacinto’s childhood days. Yet he dreams “to live in a place inhabited by birds, without the gravity of earthly things.” Later on, “he negotiated the end of childhood with himself. (…) He had always thought it was bizarre that a seed smaller than the palm of his hand could contain a tree that reached 100 meters in height.” Hands and plants are recurring themes, frequently employed to transition from one character to another. Beatriz's hands, for instance “know when to prune trees, when to pick loquats, when to pull weed”; essential tools for her domestic labor, they are somehow gifted with natural intelligence.
Vasconcelos’s film develops upon such free associations, evoking the process of metamorphosis, and functioning within both the private sphere and the larger social one. We hear, for example, young Jacinto reflecting upon his stamp collection. Initially only concerned with the wild animals depicted in those tiny rectangles, he then starts to ask himself questions “about those faraway places (…) supposedly also called Portugal.” As fragments of Angola and Mozambique travel to his desk, he develops a breathing disorder. “Jacinto's problem was the lack of oxygen in that country and its imaginary fatherlands, where everything had the name of that man who suffocated everything he touched,” reads aloud the old Jacinto, while an array of stamps reproducing infrastructures named after Salazar illustrate the oppression. And yet it is not merely about his or Portugal's isolated experience: stamps from other countries formerly colonized by the UK or France—Swaziland, Zambia, Senegal—appear onscreen, while Mozambique's festive chants of revolution rise on the soundtrack.
Vasconcelos is thus careful to include broader, shared experiences of inequality. One sequence examines what Jacinto’s sister Teresa thinks about gender differences. Observing sockets and plugs, she realizes—voiced by a male narrator—that the first are “stuck to a wall, unable to move” but essential to the functioning of a house, the latter, instead, “could freely move around (...) and enter any sockets they wish.” While the camera lingers on a socket at the center of a pink wall, the voice continues to list traditional female tasks. As the narration then goes on to enumerate male activities, a woman with wet hair enters the frame and plugs a hair dryer into the socket. Its buzzing sound covers the ongoing listing, silencing it and implying, with an amused twist, that the time has come to move on.
As the director moves forward in her own life, her father Jacinto grows older: “His body was too large, as if he had too much skin. (…) The cells of his body were becoming as massive as mountains,” a male voice comments over close-ups of adult hands, a surface scored by wrinkles like hills and rivers furrowing the land. The Metamorphosis of Birds is primarily about time and grief, but every end is also a new beginning. “Loss” can mean “spring,” flowers bloom in time-lapse, proudly exposing their once protected core to the world. In Vasconcelos’s masterful arrangement of “things,” such metamorphoses reveal themselves in time.