English Title: Birdsong

Original Title: El cant dels ocells

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Andergraun Films, Capricci Films, Eddie Saeta, Televisió de Catalunya (TV3).

Director: Albert Serra

Producer(s): Luis Miñarro, Montse Triola

Screenplay: Albert Serra

Cinematographer: Jimmy Gimferrer, Neus Ollé-Soronellas

Art Director: Jimmy Gimferrer

Editor: Ángel Martín, Albert Serra

Runtime: 98 minutes

Genre: Experimental Documentary

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Victòria Aragonés, Lluís Carbó, Mark Peranson, Lluís Serrat Batlle

Year: 2008

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

The three wise men are making their way to see the newborn Jesus Christ. However, they remain uncertain of which direction to travel, and encounter serious difficulties in the shape of a mountain and the hilly terrain that predominates during their journey. Christ has been born to Mary and Joseph, who remain isolated in a very small house and who concentrate on tending a young goat. The three wise men find their saviour and worship and lavish gifts upon him, before moving on to discuss their respective dreams whilst resting in a forest. They then resume their ongoing travels.    

‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. And the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.’ So runs the quote at the start of Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco giullare di Dio/Francis, God’s Jester (1950), which in many ways is a key precursor to Albert Serra’s Birdsong. As in Rossellini’s film, Serra treats his three wise men as holy fools, as sainted innocents. But importantly he takes them seriously as such, finding in their quest (a quest that defines the horizons of the narrative in having no clear beginning or ending) something of a metaphor for life itself: a protracted, ongoing journey characterized by overcoming successive quotidian struggles and obstacles rather than building carefully towards a clear-cut goal that somehow completes the picture and the life.     
This already implies the extent to which Serra strips away all the visual and narrative baggage typically associated with Christian religious stories and iconography. As he did with his previous work, Honour of the Knights (2006), the director takes a sacred text and pares it down to leave almost nothing beyond the absolute reality of figures in a landscape. Indeed, the whole film could be read as a documentary of the performance of a famous story, an amateur theatrical presentation that explores the marked preconceptions that such a tale carries with it and have come erroneously to define its ostensible reality. This is stressed most overtly in the numerous extended takes (there are only 81 shots in total, in a narrative whose duration runs to almost one hour and forty minutes) that simply depict the physically-infirm protagonists wandering through a parched, mountainous terrain and struggling to negotiate its hills and valleys. These aged and overweight characters, two of whom are played by the earlier film’s Don and Sancho Panza, appear to be cast into their grand adventure almost against their will, and certainly without their having any real knowledge of what they are undertaking or quite why they are undertaking it.
In this, Serra goes further than Rossellini in stressing a marked physicality as a means, ultimately, of penetrating beyond the purely phenomenological. It is noticeable that, when the three wise men finally achieve their goal and find the newborn Jesus two-thirds of the way into the film, the composition stresses stillness and fixity, with one of the men merely lying prostrate before the infant and his parents, and his companions similarly immobile behind him. Serra singles this scene out with the only non-diegetic music in the whole film, and the effect is one of stressing the soul in flight at the precise moment when the body becomes static. It is a subtly-transcendental moment amid such contextual banality and domesticity: at once a most radical presentation of a canonical image and at the same time the most authentic in that the viewer is given complete freedom to project him or herself into the image (or not) and to make of it what they will.   
Working not only with the same actors but also the same key crew members, on locations found immediately prior to production using Google Earth (in fact Iceland and the South of France), Serra has one again fashioned a film whose extremes of art cinematic narration and methodology make it a potentially difficult experience. However, unlike other minimalist auteurs like Lisandro Alonso, there is a playful, humorous quality to Serra’s work that undercuts any portentousness or authorial self-aggrandizement. Affirmative comedic vitality comes as naturally to this director in this story as it did to Buñuel in Simón del desierto/Simon of the Desert (1965), and it confirms him among the most fascinating voices in modern world cinema.

Author of this review: Adam Bingham