“In French: mère. In Greek: μητέρα. In Hebrew: אִמָא. In Hindi: मां. In English: mother.”
2020 was without question one of the most challenging years for pretty much everyone. This pandemic has altered the way we see everything. And yet for cinema – whose cultural importance becomes increasingly apparent in these crazy times – it has been one of the most interesting years. The Metamorphosis of Birds (original Portuguese title: A Metamorfose Dos Pássaros) was one of the first films I was lucky enough to see when cinemas finally reopened (s/o to Werner at Pulp!). Anyone who knows me knows that films are one of the things I cherish the most in life, because film has a way of touching us, of somehow laying bare the emotions that we ourselves don’t understand, and presenting them through a medium that helps us to process them. In some ways, films are a way of reflecting, of growing, of healing. And this film is in many ways the pinnacle of this idea, especially today of all days.
The Metamorphosis of Birds, a cinematic undertaking that exists in the twilight zone between autobiographical documentary and art installation, is an intergenerational project, born from a longing to reconstruct and reconnect. After Henrique and Beatriz are married on the day of her 21st birthday, Henrique, a naval officer, must spend prolonged periods at sea, far away from his beautiful wife, and their children, whom she must essentially raise on her own. The film, directed and produced by their granddaughter, Catarina Vasconcelos, chronicles the childhood of Jacinto (Catarina’s father) and his 5 siblings with their mother, Beatriz, and the relationship of their parents, from the blooming romance that sweeps the audience into a kaleidoscope of natural imagery, to Beatriz’s untimely death. It is Henrique’s wish that their correspondence, love letters that traversed continents and oceans, be burned upon his death. What emerges from the cinders of these letters that his children must reluctantly ignite, is a deeply contemplative and lyrical ode to motherhood.
The aesthetics of this film – possibly my favourite component of any film bc if the vibes are popping? You have my absolute attention – are truly mesmerising. I said *mesmerising*. Every single shot is a purposefully composed, meticulously crafted work of art, and the narrative voice-over spins delicate lines of poetry that both entrance and devastate in their beauty. I mean:
“If the sky was the place where the unknown started, then the landscape was the bridge between the known and the unknown, between the visible and the invisible. And I really wanted to be invisible.”
Don’t show this to your English teacher because you’ll be writing an essay right there on the spot. That’s how symbolically potent this film really is. It brilliantly delves into the poetry of the mundane, bestowing meaning upon the smallest mushroom, the faintest wrinkle, the most unassuming ripple of water. At certain points, I must admit it did feel like one of those nature slideshows you might see on one of the fancy flatscreen TVs in Incredible Connection, but the imagery is so breathtaking, and the voice-over is so captivating that I really didn’t mind.
The Metamorphosis of Birds is so intensely personal, almost reading like a scrapbook, a collage of family memories, and yet it rings with such a stark universality. Even though this film is specific to the Vasconcelos’ own past experiences, it ruminates clearly on the universal power and ineffability of mothers. At one point, the narrator recites, “Mothers were the only gods without non-believers”, the poignancy of which needs no clarification, and I couldn’t help but think about my relationship with my own mom. From the loadshedding card games, giggling by candlelight, to the phone calls she patiently endures as I complain about the newest minor inconvenience to derail my day, to calling the bank for me when I’m too scared to, to the assuredness and peace of mind that only she can instil, my mom is in many ways the anchor that keeps me from drifting away. And so this quote rings so true, because how can there possibly be non-believers to the divinity of mothers when we are confronted with their grace and unconditional love every day? And its plainness has never been more apparent than over this last year, especially for those of you like me who haven’t lived at home for prolonged periods of time since leaving for university. Lockdown has reminded me just how precious and just how fleeting these moments are, and how they above all things need to be cherished.
And so on Mother’s Day, this theme, dealt with so intimately in The Metamorphosis of Birds, once again bursts forward, claiming centre stage, with the thunderous standing ovation it deserves. It begs the question: What is a mother? And the answer it yields is: everything. The beacon of light in a period of darkness. The dose of reality we don’t know we need. The gentle nudge when we can’t seem to carry on. Or a welcoming shoulder to rest our tear-streaked faces.
“I never forgot what it was like to see the world perched on her arms”. For me, these were the most moving words in the far too brief 100-minute runtime of this film. Because it is through a mother’s rose-tinted eyes, that the world becomes a much more beautiful place. So find time today to call your mom, to embrace her if you can. Pay homage to the woman who has shaped you into the person you are today, in all your perfection.
Images: Stills from Vasconcelos, The Metamorphosis of Birds.