The Metamorphosis of Birds is a curious and hypnotic biographical docudrama from Catarina Vasconcelos – the equivalent of sifting through a family memory box. There is a quirkiness about this Portuguese drama that makes it comparable with Amelie and Wes Anderson. In Amelie, Audrey Tatou’s character has a sentimental sway collecting various trinkets on a low-key scavenger hunt, the stuff of music boxes. Harbouring this fascination, The Metamorphosis of Birds embraces a self-aware, textured, screen format and eclectic feel similar to the films of Wes Anderson.
Semi-biographical in nature, this unconventional story settles on a Portuguese family as a mother Beatriz and her children cope over months and years with their father Henrique away at sea. A multigenerational tale, The Metamorphosis of Birds starts with a distinct ’70s vibration, becoming more modern in its sensibilities as the torch is passed on to the next generation with Jacinto’s journey as a focal point. While some of the names are different, this deeply personal story of family lineage belongs to Catarina and her father, which becomes abundantly clear in the closing stages.
Retaining the wardrobe, hair and even stylistic elements from the age, there is a nostalgic and even wistful feel, which comes through strongly in the visuals and echoed in the narration. Playing as if a docudrama in one sense, the carefully composed shots are so artful that you can’t help but acknowledge the synthetic undercurrent. Echoing the Instagram generation with the frame size, manicured visuals and storytelling devices, The Metamorphosis of Birds remains distinct in its vision yet surprisingly relatable.
One of the most unusual films you will probably ever see, it’s strangely hypnotic in the way that it melds sound and visuals. There is no dialogue, no typical character interactions or traditional sense of continuity, instead embracing a poetic quality. Driven by narration rather than performance, it’s as if people are reading letters, a useful and fitting exchange in the context of the ’70s. Ranging from meditative to poetic, the language is full of metaphor complementing the visuals quite masterfully. Keeping a steady rhythm without becoming excitable, The Metamorphosis of Birds is strangely calming and soothing even.
“I see you.”
Free of technology, there is much more daydreaming, giving this surreal film a playfulness. Using peacock feathers, mirrors, music and found objects, The Metamorphosis of Birds finds magic in the seemingly ordinary. Taking the time to create a stream of dreamlike sequences, it harnesses magic realism to maintain a retro otherworldliness. Somewhat alienating in contrast to traditional filmmaking, its family photo album nostalgia and rich emotional hues compel it as a work of innocence and wonder.
Touching on themes around an absent father, The Metamorphosis of Birds has an emotional undertone that is carried through each visual composition. This is about as arthouse as it gets, deliberately slow-moving and contemplative, finding its own sense of rhythm. Constantly integrating nature as props, slow-motion effects and landscapes, Vasconcelos manages to sustain the film’s slow-burning curiosity and multimedia poetry.
The Metamorphosis of Birds has a consistency when it comes to its gentle ebb and flow. While a steady stream of seemingly unrelated photographic portraits may seem like a lot to take in and risk becoming tedious, this is what makes this intoxicating docudrama so special. There are a few moments where the art’s whimsy verges on absurdist comedy, in danger of letting the line out too much, but these instances are infrequent. The shift from retro to modern, reflective of each era’s appetites offers a welcome refresh, yet somehow it all seems to hang together under Vasconcelos.
As eclectic as it is, the introspective tone remains constant, offering some grounding to an otherwise lofty and surreal slow cinema experience. Yet, it’s not surprising when The Metamorphosis of Birds comes into land, bringing its persistence-of-memory storytelling full circle as reality is sifted from fairy tale.
The Metamorphosis of Birds is strictly arthouse, likely to alienate viewers who are just looking for something light and predictable. However, for those willing to immerse themselves in the gentle poetry, rhythm and intimacy of this curious family portrait, you may just open a trinket box of nostalgic, poetic, thoughtful, surreal, tender, wistful and strangely calming treasures.
The bottom line: Hypnotic