There was once a father and a daughter who had lost both of their mothers and were suddenly floored by the emptiness left by these women, who echoed all of their understandings and desires and selves. Depleted by her mother’s demise, losing her fight to cancer when Catarina was just seventeen, and the burning of letters (her grandfather’s last wish before his death) exchanged by her grandparents, proof of shared secrets, she begins to wonder about what happens afterwards. Where does one end up? Do we really disappear? “The dead don’t know that they’re dead.” Only the living do. Where others saw old letters, she saw the finite destruction of the grandmother she had never met, Beatriz or ‘Triz,’ as loved ones called her, and so the idea of making a film about her became an incendiary goal. Six years ago, the letters burnt and she began the film I had now the pleasure of watching.
More Portuguese than she would ever claim her film to be, it is difficult to separate it from the lyricism that lives within our culture of nostalgia, of those who wish to retrieve what often never was. In an orchestra of words, heavy and sultry and fuming with loss, the film’s text swelled in our ears as it spoke of how we read the world. The exacerbated sentimentality, the catharsis. At some point in the beginning, she talks about the waters and the trees and she asks about the birds too. Of people going away with the birds, when their bodies perish. Catarina soon found out that in order to talk about Beatriz, she would also have to talk about her mother, the one who went with the birds, as she puts it. Without a clear way to reach any of them and ask them about themselves, she tries to fill in the gaps of their story as one tries to detect a bird’s flight. Because, is there anything that one can possibly do to endure time’s relentlessness to forget other than to contradict it?
Portuguese writer and director Catarina Vasconcelos’ first feature film The Metamorphosis of Birds, this year’s film sensation at IndieLisboa - International Film Festival, where it earned a lengthy standing ovation and the award for Best Directing, has been inflaming spectators with a kind of essayistic poetry, an appreciation for language that brings to mind Jonas Mekas and why we came to love him: it’s in the sound life makes while we’re not paying attention that we can get a glimpse of what’s real. Everything else is memory; fiction of the real. Built from the same cloth as her short film, Metaphor or Sadness Inside Out (2013), The Metamorphosis of Birds is an equally meditative evocation on the circularity of the cycle of life, and a perpetual aching for the fleetingness of all living things. Catarina chooses film to exorcise her family history and the account of three generations. She includes herself as one of the characters, with the sole purpose of finding the remnants of what was reality and has now become truth, invented truth. At some point in the film, it is heard “The words will take you to new meanings. Make it up,” which I wrote word for word in my tiny notebook in capital letters. As with all films about families, little secrets that were not shared come out. But this was not just that. This was about mothers and the refusal to have them die twice.
‘Triz’ is the very first word that comes out of the black of the screen in the theatre. A woman of faith who grew to be the “anchor” of a family. Likened to a socket on a wall, obediently insular and forever at the disposition of a plug to be connected with, she was married to a naval officer, very much devoted to her, who spent long periods at sea. She had her children and Zulmira, her maid and friend, who helped. She was a mother, as was Catarina’s, whose body worked as vehicle for the birthing of life—from their flesh had come others—but their bodies weren’t, however, free from departing, and they died, too. And as all mothers, “(…) the only Gods without non-believers,” survived by their children, they were also women, beings who were survived by everything they had touched, but also looked at, eaten with. Like the burnt letters; intimate, elucidating objects. Catarina starts by questioning her family’s silence. The things left unspoken, or just plainly unsaid. But her family doesn’t come to her aid. As a result, she dives into the cross-sections of various layers composed of diffracted memories of Triz, her mother, and all others, and she begins her investigation, looking for secrets. Choosing them accordingly, she proceeds to hold them up to the light.
Thankfully, in 16mm film one can fit and frame just about anything. Even a sketch for the search of what never was. Made up of virtuosic frames, true tableaux vivants, all static and tenderly lit, almost designed as still-life paintings made real by the camera’s lens, The Metamorphosis of Birds finds its structure in the hybrid nature of what can only be described as imagistic words placed on top (various different voice-overs, that illuminate the path of the story being told). In the visual representation of perfectly woven metaphors, aesthetically rigid and flamboyant, Catarina’s family members soak the screen along with very neatly composed objects in a hunt for style that speaks to the films overall formalism more than of its actual testimony to the senses (sardines on a newspaper, a dry sea horse placed over a woman’s ear). But it’s in the imaginary, built through the images of, for example, a young mariner holding a ship’s searchlight out at sea or that of an object of a boat being held by what we can only assume is supposed to be ‘Triz’, two images that assemble the background for the expressing of the urgencies of love and their protection on film—“my heart stayed on shore with all of you”—that Catarina truly revels in.
What’s so fascinating about this so-called documentary caught in a real-life family saga is just how beautifully it expounds on the presence of human beings, attempts to gobble these same people up by outlining and delineating them within a film, a concrete object, palpable to touch. In other words, Catarina’s version of the lost letters, except more ambitious and encapsulating just about anything she found there was room for. In a mix of poetry and prose, creation and criticism, it arrives to us as a vehicle of experimentation. In truth, and akin to what happens with Chantal Akerman’s News from Home (1977) or Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), no portrait is built if not that of the presence of the film itself, as if it’s materializing. We’re there with her. At all times. Her words are metrically calculated, rhythmically felt. With the narrative puzzle mirroring the malleable nature of the essay film, the language of the sentiment brought into the foreground is not always felt in the clean, forward voice-overs. When I think back to the sound of language and how they’ve worked in film essays, I think of when I first saw Maison du Bonheur (2017) by Sofia Bohdanowicz, and how her voice, restrained, and yet eager to go through her experience of self-questioning, found itself placed over her motives as an artist. In comparison, Catarina’s are literary-based. It’s the words that do the translating.
Swerving in and out of the timeline in which the memories are transposed, the potency of the words, as the speech’s monotone is maintained, stops the words being spoken, to them feeling retained, or alternatively subtitled for those who don’t hear the language (or so I thought). In hearing language, there are measurements of accent, rhythm to be made. When one reads subtitles, one reads an understanding of the spoken text. Except that in a film essay such as this, where speech amounts to an obsessive accumulation of details, the text turns into a design in itself, making the film one to go back to, a library book. An object of an expedition, rather than proof of experience. When before me at IndieLisboa, boyish and yet sophisticated, hair up in a bun, big expressive smiley eyes, she confesses she’s nervous for that night’s national premiere of the film, “It’s the first time everyone will hear the words in a big screen. Truly hear the words,” it’s almost as if she’s saying they’ll really understand every last little bit of her. The subtitles? They become ink. Here, I wanted to hold the words down, screenshot them with my eyes. For Portuguese ears, the text was roaming through us, deep into the body, growing weighty in our inability to hang on to every sentence. That transcript in English, below the screen, at an international film festival, was a sharing act of what is, at its core, cinema: the evocation of making sense of things, together—image, word, emotion—a polaroid developing by itself on top of a table, before our very eyes.
In the end, family is what we inherit, but when we lose a piece of it, it’s difficult to know how to refresh ourselves back to our own flesh again. In the visible and the invisible of the sky, Man throws the unattainable. All those questions without answers. All that life leave. Catarina got on a bus, and she climbed up there, to the top of the landscape and she saw it for herself. It all runs through you, unnoticed. Her film may not be perfect as a film, but it is as perfect as life. It gives itself to us to inhabit, as in a mindset, hers, and then, our own. Thinking back to the screenings in September, it is hard to think of another film alluding that one’s mother’s hands are a soothing instrument capable of the act of sleep. What a commitment she shares with us. What heartsickness. On the screen, I felt I had heard the most private of secrets. Having only the english subtitles for clarification that we were, in fact, allowed to be there. In a cloud of quietness, it took a whole night for my half-cried smile to abandon my face. I couldn’t stop thinking about the migrating birds, their untraceable flights, and their life without gravity—“(…) without weight, I can hear the birds’ tongue,” she said. If Catarina is right, and I’m sure she is, we will also one day be that free.