In the very first spoken exchange in “Bird Island,” Antonin, a young new recruit at an ornithological rehab center in Geneva, asks the jaded rat-and-mouse breeder Paul: “What’s that smell?”
Paul replies matter-of-factly that it’s excrement. “You’ll get used to it,” he says.
This deadpan directness characterizes Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costa’s whimsical hourlong feature about a sanctuary where injured birds are treated before being returned to the wild.
The film is perched wryly between fiction and documentary. Except for Antonin, whose role was conceived by the directors, the actors are all actual staff at the center (in addition to Paul, there’s a veterinarian and a first-aid nurse). The film documents the quiet, daily labors that make up their hermetic little world — feeding, nurturing, healing and sometimes killing.
Using square frames and bright, sunlit shots, Kosa and da Costa capture the characters’ hands in close-up as they delicately maneuver bodies and flesh. A raspberry is speared onto a twig. A worm is inserted into a crevice in a tree trunk. The eyes of a dazed owl are gently opened, its feathers stroked. These scenes exude a magical tenderness that softens even the film’s many images of injury and death.
Antonin narrates the movie in voice-over, teasing out the existential dimensions of the setting. “The birds struggle to live in a world that wasn’t made for them,” he says. The words extend to him and Paul: They’ve been assigned to the center by social services so they can reintegrate into the work force after long illnesses and isolation. Not much happens in “Bird Island,” but the center’s cycles of regeneration and care leave their mark, invigorating both the characters and us.
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour. Watch on Mubi.