Catarina Vasconcelo’s film is presented as a visual sonata to revive her mother, her father’s mother and the mother of all mothers. I like to think of the film as a polyphonic diary in which we navigate to understand how the living deal with their dead. In her lyrical debut, we witness introspection and an attempt to fill in the gaps of a family’s memories.
The Portuguese filmmaker’s debut feature won the FIPRESCI award for best feature film in the new Berlin Encounters section, recognize it as an intimate film of an experimental nature, whose mourning is perceived in sequences of blossoming of flowers, colorfull birds‘ feathers and ancient acacias which invites us to the magic realism of cinema.
The story follows Triz, a woman with a passion for plants and birds, and Henrique, a marine officer, who have six children and a relationship through letters and recordings she sends him to the high seas. Jacinto, her firstborn, dreams of becoming a bird when he grows up, but his dream becomes meaningless when his mother dies. Catarina, Jacinto’s daughter, sees her grandmother as a tree and her children as its branches. Both share th pain of the loss of their mothers and together, they reinvent for themselves the meaning of home, life, death and family in the midst of their absences.
The face of Triz, the grandmother and central mother of the story, appears only three times, and her voice at the end. She is like a deity that has none non-believer, but who needs a miracle to make herself present. Through snippets, like pieces of a puzzle, a symbolic language and poetic narrative similar to a prayer or mantra emerges. When Triz dies, the curtain of her living room opens and we see how the plants have now taken over the house. It is like nature does not wait for an invitation, just as love does not stop after death.
During the 100 minutes, we perceive several layers of storytelling through patterns that intertwine the characters with the natural world and patterns that speak of political conflicts as well. Feminist exploration is addressed with ingenious images, such as that of a socket, which is female and with no other possibility to remain in the house her whole life, and that of a plug, which is male and can move freely, portraying femininity on a political and personal level. Henrique’s travels to Angola and other former Portuguese colonies also give us other clues when close-ups of vintage African stamps are shown. The themes are lightly connected with the Portuguese dictatorship of Salazar without being directly named.
The film, magnificently shot in 16mm and treated as an art installation, unfolds the first part through portraits and close-ups that, among exploded oranges, juicy pomegranates and gutted fishes, evoke Flemish and German still lifes straight out of museums. Between the art of Sorolla, Cranach the Elder, Bach sonatas and inserts from Moby Dick, the director offers abstractions seen as small statements, as in the half-real, half-unreal representations of the generational grieve. The reattachment of a leaf torn from a branch reminds us that, on a metaphorical level, we can control time, we can remake our reality, and „if when we cannot remember, we can always invent“ as the film strongly suggests.
This film reaches us like a seed that ends up germinating in various spaces within us. After all, in this family, mothers are trees, fathers are oceans and children are the birds that can fly through both as they molt their plumage and metamorphose their way through life.