‘The Metamorphosis of Birds’ is heartbreaking in the best way possible

This story, told through a series of still, quiet shots, can only be described as an emotional experience.
“The Metamorphosis of Birds” is a Portuguese film by director Catarina Vasconcelos. | Photo courtesy of IMDb.

The True/False Film Fest has taken hold of Columbia once again and so have its award-winning documentary films. These films are being screened all over vibrant, bustling downtown CoMo, along with stunning art exhibitions and live music.

“The Metamorphosis of Birds,” or “A metamorfose dos pássaros” in its native Portuguese, was one of the first films to be screened at the festival this year. Its Thursday evening showing at The Picturehouse (a disguised gymnasium at the Missouri United Methodist Church, opposite the Missouri Theatre) promised to be a unique cinematic experience for a newbie documentary viewer like myself. And what an experience it was – in the dark of the theater, I couldn’t help but shed a tear (or several) as this story of a family’s loss of a wife and mother unfolded.

Director Catarina Vasconcelos documents her grandmother and grandfather’s romantic, loving relationship and their experience raising six children. Suddenly, tragedy strikes as her grandmother Beatriz unexpectedly passes on, and the family explores their new worldview without her.

Though “The Metamorphosis of Birds” is a Portuguese film, it transcends language and culture. In his recent best picture Oscar acceptance speech, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho emphasized the multitude of films that are waiting to be discovered if you can get past the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” which certainly applies to this film. It is a universal tale of family, love, grief and rebirth that often utilizes soundscapes and silent images rather than dialogue.

The film can be described as a gripping, poetic story told through a series of nearly still images. The shots lend it the sense that you’re viewing the world through a pinhole camera: they are curated to capture only the intended scene and nothing more. Often, the camera lingers on a certain image for an extended period of time, forcing the eye to wander and appreciate the detail of the scene. Vasconcelos doesn’t tell her story directly through the people, but rather through stylized images of water, peacock feathers and most prominently, flowers blooming.

Though it is a visually-stunning and emotionally-moving film, the pacing lacks motion and feels slow at times. A quicker pace near the beginning of the film, as the family is introduced and their story begins, might lend a more somber air to the matriarch’s death and the family’s grief at the climax. Shots of the six children playing and laughing somewhat accomplish this goal and could be emphasized and drawn out in order to keep the audience’s attention.

The film’s ultimate success lies in its relatability. I found myself thinking about the passing of my own grandmother as the simple imagery and storyline left room for personal interpretation. Vasconcelos uses the documentary as a sort of diary or a space to work out her feelings about her family history, so it’s incredibly intimate. At the same time, the feelings expressed are relatable to anyone who has experienced a death in the family.

One of the larger, big-name films at True/False, “The Metamorphosis of Birds” left the audience in near-silence as it trailed off to a somber end. The film will be screened again at 9:45 p.m. on Saturday at the Willy Wilson theater at Ragtag Cinema.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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