Metamorphosis of Birds – Farewell, Peter Pan

8 July, 2021

The chirping of birds, nocturnal fireflies, and blooming flowers are part of the cellular matter of this portuguese docu-fictional film, made in the vein of Raul Ruiz’s magical realism; Catarina Vasconcelos’ debut is quite possibly one of the most notable aesthetic experiments of the past few years. It’s a story about maternity and mythology that has its origins in Moby Dick, it’s a museum of memories and personal fictions – and it’s needless to say that the film exudes the tender perfume of oranges and hyacinth, which lingers around even after the film is over. The film follows the course of four generations, focusing its gaze on one of them in particular – despite its free form, which makes use of bookish polyphonies and artifices, its time frame spans chronologically from Henrique, Catarina’s grandfather, an Ahabian sailor who left his home to travel the Seven Seas, and Beatriz, his terrestrial muse, rooted between the four walls of the home where she is raising six children and where she at times clasps her hands around a miniature vessel in order to temper her longing. It’s a love rendered poetic by distance as Henrique was not a witness to his children’s upbringing, and his only lasting memories are under the shape of family photographs. It’s no wonder that he associates Beatriz’s figure with a painting that depicts a woman who has just delivered a child, along with her newborn baby.

Metamorphosis of Birds

Vasconcelos concocts an exchange of letters between the two (which did in fact exist, but which were burned after Henrique’s passing, in the final wish of the family’s patriarch), narrated on different voice-overs and illustrated under the shape of an essay – starting from the love story of her grandparents and then recreating the non-linear memories of their children – and arriving at her father, Jacinto, the family’s first-born, and then onto his relationship with her mother. The beautifying artifices, willfully Parnassian in character, are dotted throughout the entire story, as voices whose identity is unknown appear from time to time throughout the film – Vasconcelos shows a sailor as he’s jotting down his dreams in morse code with a floodlight; on the other side, Triz and the children are reveling in a collective phantasy, a bestiary with stories of titanic whales, where bugs disturb the quietness of the home, and flowers spring up on the corners overnight. Zulmira, the family maid, is the one to recount horror stories to the children while she gives them bubble baths, making them believe that smooth-skinned monsters are lying on the bottom of the tub, is a character not associated with a human face, but rather a surrealistic, bird-shaped one. Within the home, Triz has her corner of souvenirs, each given to her from one of the children, trinkets that will always preserve them as little children, like in Peter Pan: locks of their hair, hand-made puppets, petals from the flowers that they picked, their baby clothes.

It’s a saccharine childhood, seen through images reflecting in mirrors, its traces under the shape of orange peels strewn throughout the entire house. Even so, the children discover the meaning of death early on, which they first associate with other creatures, other plants (Do we grow up as trees do? Mayflies only live for 24 hours, at most, flies live for four weeks, mice for a year tops – people, Triz says, end up living for 100 years in some cases, but that’s not in the least comparable to a whale that can live up to 240). The notion of death as a ritual comes up after the children discover a dead fowl in the family garden, and they organize a wake for it, inventing a prayer along the way, burying it under a bed of violets.

Metamorphosis of birds

After all, beyond the story of her grandparents and that of her father, Jacinto’s (who appears in front of the camera as both his fictionalized, younger version, then actually as himself, in the present time) childhood, Vasconcelos talks about mourning – the loss of her mother and the attempt at reprising a dialogue with her through the means of dreams – a sweetened phantasy where the mother returns to life fifteen years after her death, as if nothing has happened, and Caterina would tell her what new inventions have appeared across the world in the meantime; the mother would be saddened at first, then very excited to recover everything that she missed in the shortest time available. The film doesn’t set out to discuss the traces that generations leave behind, but rather to simply fill in the gaps that life itself couldn’t – the director’s relationship to her mother, her meeting with her grandmother whom she could never meet in real life and so on – it’s a story about maternity and the mythologization of family stories.

In this scheme of events, it’s irrelevant how much of The Metamorphosis of Birds is reality and how much is fabrication, since this is not what this wonderful film must be reduced to – its entire force lies in the postmodern nature of its voice-overs (sometimes they are superimposed, forcefully, other times they are interrupted by certain noises within the frame, such as a hairdryer that cuts the beginning of a paternalistic discourse) and the beauty of its images (Vasconcelos brings a tribute to Tarkovsky at one point, depicting a fallen tree which a woman is trying to lift against the tide of the wind; in a similar vein, the members of the family end up disguising themselves into ghosts that leave the home and find refuge in the mountains) – it’s a fetishization of childhood as a space, of the objects which compose it, down to mere cupcakes – and, of course, there is then an entire polyphony starting from the stories of childhood. The fact that the children, once they reach maturity, can never fully fit inside the frame is truly touching – but are rather seen as reflections in pocket mirrors or are nestled within close-ups.



The Metamorphosis of Birds was screened as a part of One World Romania, and can still be seen online, until the 27th of June. It won the festival’s Special Jury Award and its Audience Award.

Journalist and film critic, with a master's degree in film critics. Collaborates with Scena9, Acoperișul de Sticlă, FILM and FILM Menu magazines. For Films in Frame, she brings the monthly top of films and writes the monthly editorial Panorama, published on a Thursday. In her spare time, she retires in the woods where she pictures other possible lives and flying foxes.


Director/ Screenwriter