Spotlight | El cant dels ocells (Albert Serra, Spain/France)

By Robert Koehler

When discussing Honor de cavalleria (2006) in Cinema Scope 29, Albert Serra offered an argument that “a film without errors is a bad one.” And then, rather ominously, he added a general point with the specific example of Aki Kaurismaki: “And every director gets tamed…” This is not completely true; directors as far and wide as Rossellini, Dreyer, Bresson, Kubrick, Sembène, Suzuki, and Antonioni were never tamed (and if they ever were for a moment, they escaped the bonds of their captors). But it’s true enough, which has the shadowy effect of Serra foreseeing his own possible taming.
That future is doubtful, and Serra will likely be a living refutation of his own darkest idea. There is no European filmmaker to have emerged in the past five years (at least) to make the distinct impression that their art is absolute, inviolate, a discipline, a calling, a quest—certainly something that can’t and probably won’t be tamed. El cant dels ocells (the Cannes English title, Birdsong) continues the trek begun by Honor, and it, too, is happily chock full of little errors and big, teeming visions. The Quixotic madman of yore has now been replaced by a trio of Catalan-speaking loons, equally sacred in their own way, and unlike Cervantes’ poignant hero, completely successful in their mission: The Three Wise Men, travelling afar, crossing the Middle Eastern deserts to the Bethlehem outpost of Mary and Joseph protecting the Christ child from Herod’s invading thug-army. Made with the same kind of devotional Catholic belief in the spirituality of the material (and vice versa) and the inviolability of faith that informed Alain Cavalier’s masterpiece, Thérèse (1986)—a film hugely admired by Serra—El cant dels ocells delivers and adapts the verses in the first two chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel to the framework of Bazinian ground, space, and time. In the current course of films being made around the world that demand new engagement with the essentials of cinema, it is about as important a work as has been made in the past three years.
Already—all too predictably—the comparisons out of Cannes to Pasolini overstate the case. Serra could be free of such glib match-ups with Honor, since nobody had thought of conceiving of a classic adventure like Cervantes’ as a landscape film in which bodies and ground formed the essential components. (One night over beers after a Vancouver film festival screening of Honor, Serra pricked up his ears when someone at the table mentioned the way tall Quixote and fat Sancho were so funny lying around waiting for something to happen. “Bodies, bodies,” Serra responded, like a private chant.) Establishing a passage from the Gospels along similar grounds might conjure up Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966), considering each film’s attachment to black-and-white cinematography, non-professional actors, loose and even irrelevant dramaturgy, camaraderie among men living in the desert, a certain rejection of the Hollywood epic model for telling Biblical stories and a general, well, let’s just call it “realism.” But the films are really miles apart, and it does no good venturing down the Pasolini path very far.
Along with Pasolini’s Communist Jesus and overall sense of fate guiding destiny, The Gospel According to St. Matthew represents a closed system, a project with an agenda, a film aching to reanimate a neo-neorealism that had been lost along Italy’s cinematic Calvary. Serra’s context is entirely different: Blissfully free of politics in any conventional or unconventional way, the film is created out of the building blocks of genuine religious belief and the faith in the camera’s power to convey and transform one’s sense of time, duration, and position on the earth below the sky, which in this case is an actual heaven—and by the very act of filming explaining once and for all in visual terms why the ancients believed in a heaven. This is the Bazin root, alongside Catholic conviction and adherence to film’s capacity for modern art-making, which is to find meaning and form out of a necessarily rough process that’s very willing to stumble and make mistakes. In fact, errors are the point.
For one, literalists will be outraged. These three men from the Orient don’t arrive in Jerusalem, asking Herod about the news of the birth of “The King of the Jews,” and agreeing (as Matthew recounts it) to serve as Herod’s scouting team when they follow the stars in the night to Judea. There’s actual nighttime in the film (as there was in Honor), but no nighttime star to follow. (Better, when the star finally does appear, it is in the form of a sensuous CGI-free shot of the sun poking out from under clouds and casting a stunning pattern of rays that shoot out from the centre of the frame, radiating the screen.) Serra’s choices point elsewhere, away from literalism, and they’re so much more interesting. These Wise Men are already on the road at the start, though that would be a slight misnomer, since at no point during their odyssey is there a visible road or path or direction at all, rendering their quest almost mystic. And epic: The opening shot suggests that they begin in a cold clime (Iceland, in fact) and walk, walk, and walk some more into the desert (the Canary Islands, in fact).
The walking, almost like an Aboriginal walkabout, takes on a mind of its own: This is the central idea, at least from the Wise Men’s perspective. At no point do the three (Lluis Carbo as the eldest and Lluis Serrat Masanellas as the youngest—both returning from Honor—with Lluis Serrat Batlle rounding out the field) discuss their destination. At their best, as Quixote obsessively did in Honor, they discuss what’s around them at the moment, often what’s above their heads; Carbo (who was Quixote) notes early on: “At times we’re awestruck by the beauty of things…now, we can see them with our own eyes.” This isn’t limited to the Wise Men: Later, relaxing outside his stony, lonely Bethlehem home and glancing up at the sky, Joseph (Mark Peranson, speaking in Hebrew) implores Mary (Montse Triola) to “look at the sky. It’s very beautiful.” Serra’s characters are always concerned by and concentrate on the immediate, and that’s most often the physical demands of carrying on and venturing forth, or finding a comfortable place to sleep (leading to some hilarious bits in which Masanellas’ man nudges his companions to not nap so close to him so he can at least roll over his tubby body), or, especially, contemplating heaven. The elements define them, just as they are viewed as an essential component of the elements.
This is achieved by Serra in a number of different ways. First, he composes a series of long shots that he and camerapersons Jimmy Gimferrer and Neus Olle hold for many minutes—never as many as Lav Diaz, but many when compared to almost anyone else—that allow views of the Wise Men cutting a line across a landscape from one position to another, charting a pattern of distance and duration that shows the work required for such a devotional commitment. This is important: Consider the conventional syntax for such journeying in a movie, which is typically conveyed in a series of cuts, or, in previous eras, a series of dissolves to convey distance and time’s passage while compressing running time and without inconveniencing viewers to compel them to experience the effort themselves. This choice to express real time is a central aspect of a new physical cinema developing around the world, with Serra as one of its key advocates.  El cant des ocells seeks to specifically locate the viewer inside the spiritual labours, as they are felt and experienced.
During a typical Serra shot of this type, time passes in such a way that the shadows of clouds can be seen passing by, so that not just actual time and walking—the measurement of faith in God and the word of the oncoming Christ child—are visible, but so too the weather and the contours of the sky that fascinate the Wise Men and Joseph. Even more firmly than he did in Honor—in which his camera occasionally followed alongside Quixote and Sancho—Serra’s camera stays solid and in place, adopting something that’s close to an Ansel Adams view of things; willing to hold still or to pan and follow the course of the Kings across the desert or up some impossible-looking slopes—without tracking or going handheld—the camera watches the men go to the distance of the horizon and even beyond, losing them for up to nearly a minute at a time until they somehow re-emerge into view. (This is particularly the case with an astounding, nearly nine-minute plan-sequence close to the midpoint that brings the film’s exploration of earth and sky to a kind of exalting climax.) Bodies, once visible, now swallowed up by creation.
Bodies and the depiction of them change in Bethlehem, which Serra stages most unusually as a barren place where Mary and Joseph wait and bask in repose for something to happen. This is particularly true for Joseph, who is some kind of combination of a Beckett character (as are the Wise Men, in a wittier fashion), a scout waiting for Comanches in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, and, finally, as he explains how an angel tells him in a dream to take his wife and child to safety in Egypt, a Straub character. Mary tends to their lamb—the Lamb of God, in perhaps the film’s only obvious stroke of symbolism—like a baby, until the actual baby is suddenly visible, its little feet poking into view, just before the Kings arrive and prostrate themselves on the ground. At this moment, for about the only case in the film, Serra’s camera adopts a high angle, something God-like, and the only music on the soundtrack rises: Pau Casals’ composition, based on a Catalan folk song, “El cant des ocells,” written by the cellist as a song for peace in the Cold War-ravaged world and for his own oppressed Spain. The moment, as the final proper act the Wise Men must do on their quest, is both astonishingly ancient (movie characters simply don’t lie prostrate, though they do in Thérèse) and modern in its references, and serves as a passage into the remaining scenes, which point in a new direction.
Dreams take over El cant des ocells, the final phenomena after the superhuman exertions of the journey. First, Joseph explaining his vision of the angel’s instructions for escape—a dream, which Serra has regularly made real with repeated views of an angel (Victoria Aragones) overseeing the Bethlehem home and even declaring in direct address that the Son of God is eternal and that any attempt by Herod to destroy him “would always be in vain.” Then, after a physically punishing departure which leaves the Wise Men breathless and panting, a respite in a forest, in which the Kings trade accounts of their various dreams, comically competing with one another for the best, most hair-raising narrative out of the subconscious.
As far as the film is concerned, the dreams, as much as the impossible walk, the slightly (and charmingly) imprecise line deliveries, the errant lamb running away from Mary, the unpredictable movement of clouds in the sky, the diminishing available light for the camera as night descends, or the beefy and awkward movements of the three Lluises as they waddle in ocean water or a bath, are very much real. Masanellas’ man, resting his weary bones in a forest meadow, gives the film its final, emphatic imprint, its exceptionally simple and declarative statement when he says that he once saw an angel fly down from the sky. Even these religious men doubt that, though viewers of this particular film with talking angels don’t; so they question him. “I didn’t dream it,” he replies. “I said ‘saw.’”

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