Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra is an artist whose work inspires more thinking than philosophizing. Whereas his last feature adapted Don Quixote to show little more than the knight and his squire hanging out, his faux-literal follow-up, Birdsong, running for a week at Anthology Film Archives, makes a deliberately clumsy pageant from the legend of the three kings who journeyed across the desert and sea to salute the baby Jesus.
An intractable practitioner of droll minimalism, Serra is somewhat more absurdist than such fellow film-fest uncompromisers as Portugal’s Pedro Costa or Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso. Or, perhaps, as Birdsong is a mechanism built to ensure that the spectators share the protagonists’ faith, he’s more religious. Shot in rich, almost gorgeous black-and-white, Birdsong is less about the gifts of the magi than the play of light over barren, nearly lunar, landscapes. (The movie was apparently shot in the Canary Islands.) The kings ponder distant mountains—then go wandering through them. Birdsong‘s first 40 minutes are a succession of activities rendered additionally obscure for being mainly in long shot. Although no star guides them, the kings are following a vision: “We’re awestruck with the beauty of things,” one remarks. Their figures often barely visible, these pilgrims never stop to eat and never meet anyone on the road, except a stern young angel. Costume is performance. Wrapped in bedsheets and wearing pasty crowns, the three kings occasionally recall the Three Stooges.
After a while, Serra shifts his attention to the object of their quest. Joseph (Canadian film critic Mark Peranson) and Mary (Victòria Aragonés) are holed up in the middle of a barren, rocky nowhere. She’s holding a bleating lamb; he’s mumbling in broken Hebrew. Their baby is unseen, but referred to: “He peed on me,” Mary remarks. Joseph seems a bit querulous, but the overall mood is mellow. Sitting in the sun outside their stone shelter, grooving on the breeze that wafts through some scraggly shrub, the couple resembles a pair of zonked hippies. An hour into the movie, the kings scramble into the frame, heralded by stringent fanfare, to prostrate themselves before the Virgin and her baby for nearly five minutes. Then, they bathe themselves in a muddy pool.
Joseph is anxious to flee to Egypt, and the kings eventually trudge off: “We won’t be coming back—we’ve had enough of this sand.” On the way home, they take turns describing their dreams as the Angel perches in a tree keeping watch, a denouement that, in its vagueness, seems calculated to ensure that their meeting the Holy Family will be the movie’s dramatic focus. We learn from Peranson’s dryly comic on-set doc, Waiting for Sancho (Saturday and Sunday at Anthology), that the guys who play the kings can’t keep the story straight anyway, and when it comes to directing his actors, Serra believes “a little bit of confusion is good.”