Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 18, 2020 12:36 pm 
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A gemlike family essay-memoir from Portugal

This film, whose London-trained first time director has expressed admiration for Manoel de Oliveira and Agnès Varda, is a fanciful memoir that's a cinematic evocation of family and a hymn to motherhood with a literary feel. The technique is unique and impressive, more magic realist visual essay than conventional family narrative, with oddball images and the voices of the director, her father and other family members alternating as voiceovers. What unfold aren't conventional dramatized scenes but a string of moments, illustrations. Odd facts stand out more than sense of family. What seems like a masterpiece at first comes to feel a bit thin and sentimental, despite fine technique and high-culture references like Bach's violin chaconne, Liszt, Rossini, and Schubert's piano sonata in A major, the opening page of Moby Dick and staged homages to Dutch still lives.

Vasconcelos' parental origins were, on one side, special and mother-centric. Six children were raised by their mother while the father, a naval officer, was off at sea. The mother, the filmmaker's grandmother, left those six siblings perpetually bereaved by dying early, at the age of 57. Vasconcelos' own mother, one of those siblings, also died young, when the director was 17, perhaps the first inspiration for this film. Another one is implied by the grandfather's (voiceover, reconstructed) decision to sell the house and dispose of its contents to move into a home, forcing the siblings to burn his love letters exchanged with his wife, so they will never read them.

Vasconcelos establishes a distinctive viewpoint and and visual style at once both by using academy ratio 16mm images (by dp Paulo Menezes) that are jewellike and intimate, and by displaying a penchant for arcane conceits. A boy's birth is referred to and he is seen, age nine or ten, fully dressed, emerging neatly from a cabinet, as if he was playing hide and seek. Young actors "represent" siblings momentarily, like commedia dell'arte figures, rather than in dramatic scenes. There is a kind of detachment. Vasconcelos evokes her parents' generation, who grew up under the dictatoroship, as a world of posh European quietude.

A lonely young seaman on board ship comforts himself by staring long at his legs, on which are tattooed matching images of his two parents. (We don't see the seaman, only his legs with the tattoos.) The kids mourn the death of a bird, and are granted permission to give it a respectful burial. We see it neatly folded in a linen napkin, and covered with a delicate layer of soil. We see only hands, not the children. This is the work of an exquisite miniaurist, and reflects a new generation of emerging art filmmakers with a penchant for the intimacy of academy ratio and 16mm.

The director has said that there were many "blank spaces" in the family history, which she welcomed because they allowed her to "invent." But she is not a conventional, storytelling, family-narrative inventor. She tells some, but talks about a lot - through dramatized multiple family narrators, young and old, male and female. There are still blank spaces. How often did the naval officer come home and for how long? What were the various siblings' lives like? There are big gaps.

Vasconcelos is too clever for herself sometimes, as when she shows the maid Zulmira's arms chopping off the head of a goose, then a shot of her wearing a full mask of a wooden bird head. What's the title mean? One of the narrators (voices of mother, father, and children are heard) recounts that originally humans didn't know about the existence of avian migrations and simply believed that when large flocks of different species arrived they were the disappeared birds newly metamorphosed into a different form. There's talk of the naval officer father sending a seahorse, which the mother playfully wears on her ear - a telling symbol, perhaps, of surviving without a spouse.

There is much reference early on to the eldest son, Jacinto, who is reported to have dreamed of becoming a bird. One emerges from this film with many fascinating little facts and memories of clever devices, like a succession of pretty closeups of old Portuguese stamps to symbolize the country's history of colonialism. (Yes, stamps are a good record of that.) It reminds me of when I was a kid and memorized entries in Ripley's Believe It Or Not. But this is more the work of a collector, a bit detached, a viewpoint imaged in the grid shown of identical cigar boxes containing seashells. It's family history as a cabinet of curiosities that almost refines itself out of existence at times.

At the end, she throws in a few pieces of material that's more raw: a shot of a live whole gathering of the actual graying siblings, not actors or models for them, but as they are now, in their sixties or seventies. And then at the end, as a vivid little touch, a recording the director's grandmother made to send to her naval officer husband, with the voice of each of their little children, starting with the eldest, chiming in to send their love and wish he'll be safe and come back soon.

There is immense talent, imagination, and intelligence here. One hopes Vasconcelos will go on to do something less refined and with more punch. This is readymade for, maybe even a little too good for, the mature arthouse audience (perhaps even more accessible currently online), but it lacks the gutsiness and humanity and specificity one looks for in more mainstream family portraits. One wishes the affirmation of motherhood were more subtle and internalized: the lengthy list of all the languages whose word for "mother" has an "m" in it and how "motherhood is the only religion with no non-believers" is cloying and unnecessary, as is the run-on time-lapsed sequence of blooming single flowers.

The Metamorphosis of Birds/A Metamorfose dos Pássaros, 101 mins., debuted Feb. 2020 at the Berlinale and won the FIPRESCI Award for best feature in the festival's new Encounters section. It has been included in over 15 international festivals since, many virtual due to the pandemic, including the delayed Dec. 2020 New Directors/New Films, as part of which it was screened for this review.

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