Two little children in Togo search for a lost pigeon in sophomore helmer Gust Van den Berghe’s shimmeringly simple, sometimes sublime “Blue Bird,” a very free adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1909 Symbolist play. Forming the second part of an intended triptych that began with Van den Berge’s “Little Baby Jesus of Flandr,” “Bird” extends the helmer’s interest in working with non-pro thesps to achieve a studied sort of innocence that’s refreshing but also a bit slight. Fests and specialist venues should feather their nests with this, but it won’t fly far theatrically.
A slice of fairy-fey whimsy that was a staple of theater and early cinema before falling out of the repertoire, Maeterlinck’s cloying original concerns two sibling tots who go looking for the blue bird of happiness, only to find it ultimately in their own backyard. As with his adaptation of Felix Timmermans’ Three Wise Men fable for “Flandr,” which starred a trio of thesps with Down syndrome, writer-helmer Van den Berghe has stripped the original plot right back to the bones and encouraged his cast of Togolese villagers to freely improvise their lines. The result is tale that jogs alongside Maeterlinck for a while but then goes off on its own direction, refracting the story through an indigenous, tribal sensibility.
Action starts with Bafiokadie (Potey Bafiokadie), a child of about 5, and his slightly older sister, Tene (Potey Tene), playing with a blue pigeon lent to them by a friend in their village compound. When their mother (Ayekem Narisse) calls them away for their daily bath, they put the bird down and tell it to wait for them, but it has other plans and waddles off.
The kids go off to look for it through the vast countryside, caught in all its inhuman splendor through what Van den Berghe terms “Uber-Scope,” an ultra-wide digital format that looks like a 3:1 ratio, filtered through a cyanic lens that makes everything apart from the strongest reds look blue. Their meandering journey takes them on a visit to where their grandparents are buried, and the kids have a friendly chat with their ancestors’ ghosts (Koutangou Tayita and Natta Oufia), an amusingly cantankerous, bickering couple. They cross paths with their dad (N’Dah Dodji), a carpenter delivering a coffin on the back of his motorcycle to a neighboring village, who gives a lift to an aged hitchhiker (Sansamou N’Tche) en route.
Other characters/spirits encountered include the souls of the forest, who attack them because they’re angry with the kids’ dad for not replanting the wood he’s harvested; some jolly hedonists who foretell that someday the kids will stop chasing birds in favor of other pursuits; and the King of Time (Bani Nanty Liberia), a flamboyant character in a fur hat and designer sunglasses who marshals hundreds of unborn souls (yet more village kids in funny white hats) as they prepare to be born again.
By keeping the camera often at a considerable distance from the action, even making use of extreme long shots in which figures are heard but barely visible, pic holds the audience at a bit of a distance, both emotionally and literally. That’s a bit of a shame, since the lead tot protags are a cute pair one wouldn’t mind seeing more of (generally, perfs are very naturalistic, given the limitations of an all-non-pro cast).
Even so, pic has plenty of humor and warmth, despite its chilly palette and an underlying sense of menace. One transcendant shot follows what looks like a bird of prey soaring high over the landscape, while the sparse score, credited to Alexander Zhikarev and Michel Bisceglia, plays synthesizer drones and chime sounds to haunting, melancholy effect. “Death may not be the end” seems to be the subtextual suggestion, but it’s not kind, either. All in all, pic offers an impressively comfortable marriage between European filmmaking technique with an African sensibility without feeling patronizing or pastiched.
According to the helmer, the weirdest irony of all is that in the Tamberma language the thesps speak throughout, there’s no actual word for blue, just something that translates literally as “the color of the sky.”