Catarina Vasconcelos has created an extremely rich film. The Metamorphosis of Birds is a visual essay in which the narrative unfolds not only through a poetic dialogue with the past, but also through an image — a space, still life, bodies, gestures, activities, family photos. The Portuguese artist uses inanimate objects to hide private and family secrets, great, historical and small, local secrets behind them. These objects are the records of the memories of centuries — they are included in movement, in activities performed by ancestors, in the manual memory of the body. The director guides us lovingly through the ritual of anamnesis, extracting the common memory of humanity from the collective mind of history.
Yes, The Metamorphosis of Birds is like a time capsule sent into space, like a condensed record of human experiences. It is like a saudade, a feeling expressed in one word only in Portuguese, valued so highly by the Portuguese — a feeling of emotional emptiness, longing for someone or something that is far away. Feeling the passing, fragility of life, contemplating the past. Loneliness, but also the pride and joy that flow from a noble understanding of this ever-present state of mind. But Vasconcelos’ essay is not only a salute to Portuguese national identity and history, it is above all a visual pearl, taking viewers deep into their own memories and longings, afterimages of ordinary activities, gestures and reflexes. It is a dialogue between a live film and the viewer.
“And for us it was all too sad. We were a still life. We observed the world as if we were inside a painting”. Vasconcelos had turned the souls of the ancestors into the objects, into activities, into family photographs. With visual bravado, she limits the human body with a frame — focusing on details, hands, hair — and she does the same with photographs, visualizing this melancholy lack, this inability to meet again. The figures, as if alive and inanimate, can disappear from photos, leaving precisely cut contours behind.
Although the experience of The Metamorphosis of Birds is extremely difficult to describe, the title itself comes in handy. It seems to be a reference to the Goethean theory of plant metamorphosis, according to which the archetypal form of a plant is found in its smallest element, e.g. a leaf. This tiniest part is the micro-scale of the whole. Vasconcelos’ story is also a metamorphosis. The smallest element of the film — a frame, single image or spoken sentence — in a micro-scale reflects the whole work and allows the viewers to dissolve in the bittersweet delight of feeling saudade.
If Vasconcelos’ work has any drawback, it is surfeit — the narrative splendor in the film is like a shock after entering a baroque cathedral for the first time. It requires time and concentration completely inaccessible to an “ordinary” viewer who does not participate in similar rituals of anamnesis on a daily basis. In this sense, it is a closed and elitist work — available to those who not only are not afraid to look at the sky in search of birds but also have the right tools for it.
For a visuality researcher, the Portuguese director’s essay is an almost spiritual experience. It allows us to enter into a dialogue with the collective past that resides in each of us. It allows us to listen to birds singing and to watch the multi-colored birds forming keys in the sky. After all, what is a bird if not the winged spirit of the past?