Screened as part of NZIFF 2009
The best examples of ‘slow cinema’ can be at once intimate and epic. That's certainly true of Albert Serra's spare, magnificent re-imagining of the nativity. The focus in this version is on the Magi, bumbling towards Bethlehem for the blessed event, and this lumpy, weary, all-too-human trio offer a radical, serio-comic perspective on the age-old story. Although Serra is much more intent on documenting his three kings' physiognomy and the contours of the spectacular landscapes in which they find themselves, he doesn't shirk his representational responsibilities when they finally reach their goal. At this point Birdsong gracefully accepts the burden of centuries of Western art and delivers scenes of appropriate power and wonder, as the film's only music cue (‘El Cant dels Ocells’ by Pau Casals) descends like a miracle.
The visual grandeur of Birdsong's crisp black-and-white photography makes the label ‘minimalist' quite a misnomer. Even when a given shot simply records the travelers resting, or bathing, or disappearing into the horizon and stumbling back in disarray, the compositions are rich in intrinsic, if subdued, drama, and the situations resound with no less understated humour. On close inspection, the sparse, naturalistic soundtrack also reveals the secret signature of intelligent design. The pace may be stately and hypnotic, but Serra's defiantly high-concept subject cocks its snook at the kneejerk criticism that ‘nothing happens’ in this kind of film. — AL