[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
The signature shot of Albert Serra’s “Birdsong” is a lengthy take in which the Three Wise Men traverse an unbroken white expanse. The group wearily treads for minutes under the gaze of an implacable, stationary camera until something odd happens: they start to disappear into the bleached landscape. After a few more minutes, their hats pop up on the horizon and we see the men march, seemingly out of the earth, in a direction contrapuntal to the one in which they’d initially been walking. Serra has cleverly used the geography in his shot in conjunction with his black-and-white palette to trick our eyes. It’s an effect akin to those simple optical illusions that confuse and overload our poor, beleaguered human vision — white crosses in striped fields, closely stacked black lines radiating out from a common center, images flickered in rapid succession.
The act of seeing is gently taxed throughout Serra’s second feature. Attuned to the rhythms of a very specific brand of art cinema, a loose taxonomy that includes folks like Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos, and Carlos Reygadas, “Birdsong” is constructed almost entirely of static shots where human action is dwarfed by monumental, monochromatic landscapes; largely lacking in dialogue, Serra’s take on the journey of the Magi to visit the newborn baby Jesus breathes travel, exploration, and perhaps a bit of deism as well. One imagines a small team off in the wilderness conjuring the film, literally from the ground up, instead of working from extensive preplanning. It all might get terribly heady and mystical, if Serra weren’t a bit of a comedian as well.
Even as we’re contemplating landscape, Serra’s narrative continually asks the simple question: What if the Three Wise Men were a trio of ungainly bumblers? In Serra’s imagination, that would require the Three Kings of Orient to clump together under sagebrush trying to maneuver their bloated bodies so as to comfortably catch a few more hours of morning shut-eye, or, for their nominal leader, after working a rock out of his sandal, to lie on the ground and roll his girth downhill like a child. The offbeat humor adds another dimension to Serra’s formal rigor, one that often gets called out for plodding self-seriousness.
As their journey progresses, Serra begins intercutting scenes from the home of Mary and Joseph (in another twist sure to please the cinephiles, played by Mark Peranson, editor of the magazine Cinema Scope), who, for the longest stretch of the film seem so preoccupied with their new lamb, and so absent a human baby, that you wonder if the filmmaker’s decided on a very literal substitution. But when the Magi arrive and see Mary with the child, the three prostrate themselves, and the film’s only music cue cascades in on the soundtrack. This comparison might be a little far afield, but when “Frozen River” hit its own spiritual peak (also around the revelation of a child), I hoped for a touch of the ethereal such as this, but it never came. Serra’s emboldened enough to puncture his formalism with humor, and knows how to elevate his material control to the level of the ineffable.
“Birdsong” is just now beginning a one-week run at New York’s venerable Anthology Film Archives, long a home to the best of the avant-garde, now an increasingly valuable resource for great new films lacking conventional distribution pushes (see also recent runs of “La France,” “Mary,” and “The Romance of Astree and Celadon.”) “Birdsong” sits well within this group, none masterpieces, all fascinating, oddball, and unlikely to rest easily within any strictly defined boundaries.