Blood is considered to be sacred in the Christian religion. Those of you who attended mass probably had to drink the communion wine, symbolizing the blood of Christ. In this respect, the Book of Birdie is blood-soaked, and not in the traditional horror sense. The movie is more of a dark fantasy with mysterious phenomena. You’re more likely to raise your eyebrows than hide your face at the sight of blood.

The story follows Birdie (played by Ilirida Memedovski), a young girl in the early stages of teenage-hood. She is left behind at a convent by her grandmother, for reasons that aren’t initially explained. The nuns are very welcoming of Birdie, though they tend to be very strict on occasion. They increasingly put pressure on Birdie to consider donning the veil or to sing louder during the hymnals. Life at the convent is very monotonous and Birdie doesn’t really fit in with the nuns. She tries to occupy her mind by reading comic books and stealing kisses with the groundskeeper’s daughter Julia (Kitty Hall), the only other girl remotely close to Birdie’s age. Her lesbian tendencies might make you think that Birdie is a nonbeliever, but this idea is contradicted by scenes of her frantically reciting the Divine Praises in the privacy of her room.

Using my powers of deduction, it’s my guess that the convent is located somewhere in Wisconsin. It’s never outright stated, but Birdie gives us a hint when she tells Julia she can’t see Michigan from across the lake. Upon further research, I discovered that filming was done at the Kemper Center in Wisconsin, a place with a history of hauntings. Most of the movie takes place during the winter, which adds to the dullness and ominousness of the convent.

 

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Something strange is happening to Birdie. She’s having visions of dead nuns around the convent; one hanging by a noose in a tree, the other lying broken at the bottom of a circular staircase. They both speak to Birdie, one in a pleasant, caring tone while the other is more menacing and accusing. The nun in the tree addresses our bewilderment when she says “You’re a little confused, aren’t you, dear?” Birdie is only given blank stares when she asks about the dead nuns’ backstories. It’s worth noting that the real-life Kemper Center was the location of many nuns’ deaths and that there have been sightings of a ghostly nun tumbling down the stairs.

 

Early in the film, Birdie wakes up to a puddle of blood in her bed and a miscarried fetus no bigger than a shrimp. She names the fetus Ignatius (after the saint) and hides it in a jar under her bed. The nuns are quite shocked to see the bloodstains in Birdie’s mattress, and ask her if her menstrual flow is normally this heavy. Thing is, blood is consistently flowing out of Birdie throughout the movie, yet she never appears feel faint or be disturbed by this. In fact, she appears pleased as she marks images of Christ and the Virgin Mary with her own blood, additions to her ever-growing secret shrine to Ignatius. So much blood is flowing out of Birdie that she’s eventually drinking cupfuls of her blood and still has enough left to smear all over the chapel. I usually enjoy movies with buckets of blood, but I must admit I gagged a little during these scenes. It’s probably due to my male aversion to period blood. There’s a particularly bizarre scene where Birdie’s uterus escapes through a cut in her skin and flies off, flapping its ovaries at hummingbird-speed. It’s not clear whether or not this is just another one of Birdie’s hallucinations.

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There’s no real explanation as to why this is happening to Birdie. Either that or I just didn’t pick up on the subtle clues on my first viewing. Is it a blessing or is it a curse? One nun theorizes that it might be a form of stigmata. Another indication could be in Birdie’s fixation on Saint Philomena, the patron saint of youth, who was martyred by decapitation for refusing to give up her virginity to a Roman emperor. It might explain what happened to Birdie prior to coming to the convent. I’m one to take movies literally and I don’t normally read into symbolism. But this movie leaves a lot unanswered. It’s up to the audience to fill those holes and come up with their own interpretation.

The art direction in The Book of Birdie is incredible. There’s a lot of close-ups of crucifixes and dream sequences of Birdie in saint-like poses, adorned in her own blood. There’s also colorful animated scene transitions, in a papercut art style by Konstantinos Koutsoliotas and Aurelija Salickaite. Memedovski in her debut role as Birdie is captivating. Roughly 60% of casting is based on looks, and Memedovski has the perfect face that displays both innocence and wonder. Yet she has enough acting skills to carry the whole production on her back. The rest of the cast is exclusively female, a very rare occurrence in cinema. This film definitely scores high on the Bechdel Test. To add to that, most of the behind-the-scenes crew was female, including first-time director-writer Elizabeth E. Schuch.

The Book of Birdie has the fantastical feeling of a Guillermo del Toro film, like Pan’s Labyrinth or the Devil’s Backbone, yet is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It would be worth keeping an eye on both Memedovski and Schuch to see what they do next in their promising careers.

3 / 4 eberts

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The North American premiere of the Book of Birdie will be the closing film of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 15 at the Wythe Hotel Cinema. To buy tickets, go here.