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Cannes Film Festival, 2008: "El Cant dels occels" (Serra, Spain)

Some stories are told so many times there is no longer any need for words. Albert Serra understands this. His digitalized, elliptical, nature-bound adaptation of Quixote, Honor de cavalleria, and now his story of the three wise men's visit to Jesus, El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong), leave storytelling behind and envision tales worn ragged until the pages the film adapts must have faded away, and all we are left with is minimal, uneventful human beauty.
Serra is interested in the silence and the calm, the dead time between the monumental. With no plot, this road movie leads up to only the most modest to spiritual climaxes. The three wise men traverse the desert across glowing black and white landscapes at a plodding, irregular pace, as two are overweight and one is elderly. Indulging in a humor that is very unexpected in such jaw-dropping, ostentatious cinematography, the men good naturedly bicker over the difficulty of their journey, their options ahead, and sleeping situations. No longer employing a searching camera, Serra still has a roving sense of direction: his actors seem loose in the frame and unrehearsed in movement. The popping chiaroscuro of the white desert or black walls of rock at night, and the three men's stoic attitudes go hand in hand with Serra's choice to give them casual freedom in all things: movement, manner of speech, rhythm. This imbues the men, and later, Mary, with a nobleness, a simplicity that speaks in place of a story.
If Serra had the stricture and discipline, his films might visually resemble something by Straub/Huillet, but there is casualness and human meekness inside of the film's absolutely gorgeous, pristine world of exquisite nowheres, unnamed lands, and in-between paths. The men plop down and talk of ridiculous dreams, toying with ferns and branches laying around, crumble rocks in the darkness speaking of the beauty of small, unnoticed things; Mary nurses a young lamb with an unresponsive Joseph, and the film simply envelopes you in its sharp, radiant shades. Like Honor de cavalleria, many scenes are staged in the darkest of dark light, and there is one shot, of Mary holding her lamb in the evening, where the presence is just a glow, a muted aura in the gloom. Such casual beauty seems impossible to arrive at, working at a remarkable place between the rigor of pictorialism and the freedom of total improvisation. Serra is finding voluptuous, humble nobility in a non-dramatic, non-story, and non-character based cinema, and it is a wonder to behold.

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