On whichever side of whichever issues you stand, one nearly universal fact is that the past few years have been hard to live through. The constant racket of punditry and outrage in the world have made it difficult to feel anything but fear and unease. I’m a grown up and it gets to me just about every day; I can only imagine how horrific it is for children to deal with, to know their parents and teachers are afraid and worried all the time. But it’s for these times that a movie like Tito and the Birds was made, which shows us a world where fear itself is literally the thing to fear, and something as seemingly unimportant as birdsong can do a world of good. From Brazilian directors Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg, who also co-wrote and co-produced, Tito and the Birds is a gorgeously creepy movie about a world beset by the most insidious plague, an illness that, once contracted, seemingly has no cure and leaves the inflicted on a one-way course to petrification. As a result, those already suffering are shunned from society, authorities march around in hazmat suits spraying chemicals (very evocative of Romero’s The Crazies), and a rich pundit shouts on television that people shouldn’t be too afraid, but also shouldn’t be too unafraid. The city is on pins and needles waiting for the other shoe to drop.
At the center of the story is Tito, a schoolboy whose now-missing scientist father was attempting to cure the outbreak at its nascent stage by communicating with birds, specifically pigeons. Tito’s mother was sure this was a stupid plan and hated how close Tito was to the dirty, gross sky rodents.
Years later, the city’s birds have all stopped singing, Tito’s mother is in constant fear of fear, while Tito is sure his father’s research into birdsong is the key to reversing the plague. Naturally, some want to keep things the way they are—fear is very profitable for those who know how to harness it—and the children end up being the only ones capable of seeing beyond groupthink paranoia.
Tito and the Birds is a perfect melding of animation style and material. Like a living oil painting influenced by Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the exaggerated visuals reflect the terror felt by all the characters. The further along in the sickness people are, the scarier they look, feeding back into the fear felt by those seemingly uninfected. When people reach the disease’s endpoint, and become literal egg-shaped passes of granite with faces, it’s as effective as it is ridiculous.
The filmmakers use those afflicted by this disease as a stand-in for any “othered” group. Tito is a middle-class kid who lives okay, but his best friend Buiu is a poor kid from the bad part of town. He always looks like someone with the early stages of the disease and so he’s bullied and left out by the richer kids. The film’s villain, Alaor, is a shady rich TV host who keeps the fear spreading via his shouting rants while making a fortune selling condos in his “fear-free” domed community, pretty much all of whom are drawn with lighter skin tones. As an American, it’s not hard to see similarities to certain people in our government, but as Brazil has just elected its own far-right president, the film’s point of view is both local and global.
An exciting and unique presentation coupled with a troubling, dystopian narrative make Tito and the Birds a movie unlike any you’re likely to see in animation. It’s a movie adults and children should watch together, because it’s so easy in 2019 to get caught up in fear- and hate-mongering voices and a movie with a message like this is one of the clearest and most decisive slices through the din of rhetoric.
4 out of 5
Images: Shout! Factory