I don’t speak of this often, but I was a very religious child. What drew me in was the initial broad stroke fantasy that the Bible displayed, explaining away the strangest things while exalting those who stood up for their Christian beliefs at the expense of their life. For an odd child who grew up as an outsider, this was enough to distract me from the reality of the world around me. However, reflecting back on this time period of my youth, I realize that my fascination with religion was laced in the macabre. And it is this realization that led me to relate significantly to Birdie’s story in THE BOOK OF BIRDIE.
I’ll start off by saying that I really do not think THE BOOK OF BIRDIE is a classic horror film. More accurately, I would say that it runs more like a slow psychological thriller, but also reads very much like a singular quiet exploration into the topic of a young girl’s trauma. With that thought in mind, it made it easier to potentially understand THE BOOK OF BIRDIE. However, at times, the film could read as confusing if the context of certain scenes weren’t grasped.
THE BOOK OF BIRDIE starts off focusing on a young teenage girl named Birdie, played by Ilirida Memedovski, after a disturbing unnamed incident convinces her grandmother to drop her off at a convent in Wisconsin. For context, the film appears to take place either in the 1950s or the 1960s, so this type of action was considered perfectly normal for some when dealing with problematic daughters. We get hints here and there throughout the entirety of the film of what exactly happened to Birdie as she tries to adapt to life in the nunnery. The subtleties may not resonate with many viewers as there are some that are arguably distinctly feminine in its display. But the film’s power I feel lies within the subtle unveiling of the horror that took place. And now we are led to watch Birdie pick up the pieces as she descends into a slow, but steady psychosis.
The slow pace in which director Elizabeth E. Schuch has laid out for the viewer may not appeal to many, especially for a film that doesn’t go out of its way to deliver explicit or traditional jump scares. However, I think the film’s strength is in its embrace of the slow and steady lifting of the veil, allowing the audience to take their time to think and process before realizations fully assault the senses. And these realizations are dark.
The film is saturated with symbolism, which focuses on blood, martyrdom, and babies. These symbols combined help with hinting at Birdie’s circumstances long before we arrive at the most gruesome scene. Earlier on in the film, Birdie discovers and is introduced to St. Philomena, the patron saint of infants and youths who was murdered at the age of 13. Birdie quickly grows obsessed with her and eventually creates a shrine dedicated to the young, martyred saint, using the saint to project her own thoughts onto as she copes with something terrible. The something terrible is not told to us. It is shown through a blood-soaked mattress carrying a misshapen fetus.
But the story doesn’t end there. Again, we are here to witness Birdie descend into madness, a madness that may have been there all along and just needed a little shove. She starts to hallucinate dead nuns in select places around the convent. One particular dead nun reminds her that she willingly let Satan enter her but, in a rare instance of speech from Birdie, she reminds the nun that she couldn’t stop him, that he was bigger and stronger. Again, this reminds us what the true horror of this story is. Or, at least, what I believe it to be, which is a young girl trying to reconcile her own rape.
And the thing is, no one really seems to understand or respect Birdie. Throughout the course of the film while she is dealing with her own trauma, the nuns of the parish talk down to her and treat her as if she is stupid. The one other teenage girl Julia (Kitty Hall) laughs and occasionally talks down to her. Taking this all into account, we can see why Birdie is so silent and doesn’t feel safe or secure enough to reveal her innermost thoughts and feelings. It could be argued that the blood coming out of her orifices could be as a result of her internalization of her own trauma. There’s nowhere for the truth to go, except outward and the truth will find away.
I could not finish off this review without mentioning the stunning cinematography featured in this film. Director Schuch teams up with relative newcomer Konstantinos Koutsoliotas to create visuals we see on the screen and their lack of experience doesn’t show at all. I was actually surprised to find out that this was Schuch’s first feature film because the way the directing and the visuals went together seemed something more akin to a seasoned veteran.
Overall, I found THE BOOK OF BIRDIE to be a very powerful, but slow-paced film. It isn’t in the vein of traditional horror and, honestly, may turn off many horror fans out there. However, if one is willing to see past the surface of the film and dive deep into the rich wealth of symbolism and the powerful performance conveyed by the young lead, it won’t be long until you discover the true horrors that reside within the film.
THE BOOK OF BIRDIE is now available to watch on VOD.