It began, we must suppose, with the letters. Director Catarina Vasconcelos’ grandfather Henrique was a Portuguese sailor gone for long, homesick periods from his children and his wife, Triz. They wrote letters back and forth, but Henrique ordered the correspondence burned upon his death. His children, all grown with children of their own, reluctantly complied, heartsore at their parents’ words going up in smoke. Vasconcelos’ beautifully pensive, lyrical debut feels like an attempt to unburn those letters, to fill in the gaps between memories with fantasy and fiction, and so to regain lost lives for a moment, the way, by spooling a loop of film backwards, she can reattach a plucked leaf to a branch.
“The Metamorphosis of Birds” is difficult to categorize, as a hybrid of memoir, metafiction, family history and gorgeously shot 16mm art installation. But that those distinctions are hazy is only right, given that this luminous feature is all about the way the most important things defy the hard edges of their definitions. Love lingers after death. Names refer to people but also to flowers and emotions. Or, as one of the voices of the film’s choral prose-poem narration suggest, “Objects have their own secret lives” — an idea subtly evoked when a grieving girl sits at a piano, her hand resting lightly on its keys while a snatch of classical piano music plays on the soundtrack, as though it’s coming from the instrument itself.
In DP Paulo Menezes’s warm-toned, Academy-ratio frames, the first half of the film unfolds largely in portraits and closeups, while the voices of the director, her father and other family members alternate, telling the story of Henrique and Triz’s life together, sometimes in first person, sometimes third. And amid burst-open pomegranates and gutted fishes that could be details pulled from some Flemish still life, patterns emerge to entwine the characters and the natural world. Beloved housekeeper Zulmira talks of birds, as the hands of children perform a solemn bird burial, its shroud a crisp white handkerchief. Henrique describes a seahorse, like the one a young woman presses into her braided hair so that it nuzzles her ear. Triz, her name an accidental English homonym, loves trees, and motherhood itself is soon artfully evoked by forests, saplings, leaves.
In such a cornucopia of metaphor-rich images, some are bound to feel a little strained. Vasconcelos working through a jigsaw puzzle of her grandmother’s face seems a little obvious, as does a sequence in which her far-off figure climbs a canyon carrying a flag emblazoned with the woman’s smiling eyes. And it’s very nearly jarring when we pan up from Zulmira’s capable hands expertly prepping poultry for the pot and see a giant rubbery bird head sitting on her shoulders. But this unevenness is a factor of the sprawl of the film’s language and, particularly in the second half, when it expands to encompass mountain ranges, sunrises and horizons, more often it soars.
“When you can’t remember, invent” is advice passed on at one point, but what is remarkable here is the vividness of Vasconcelos’ inventions. The sailor who spends lonely moments staring at the tattoos on his calves so he doesn’t forget his parents’ faces. The grief-stricken family sitting so perfectly still that only a cigarette’s curling smoke proves they’re not in a photograph. The montage of old stamps alluding to Portugal’s colonialist past in Mozambique and Angola. Mirrors that bring the outside in, or that, in a lovely sequence of trompe l’oeil images, reflect portions of a forest back onto itself, embedding shards of stolen sky in the soft ground. A breathtaking arrival for Vasconcelos, “The Metamorphosis of Birds” makes such abstractions seem simple declarations, like in the half-remembered, half-imagined landscapes of generational grief, it is obvious that mothers are trees, fathers are seas and children flit between them like things with feathers.
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