A monochrome spatial symphony in three geographic movements, Birdsong returns repeatedly to three robed figures (Lluís Carbó, Lluís Serrat Batlle, Lluís Serrat Masanellas) in long shot, struggling against wind and mountainous or desert terrain, proceeding from foreground toward the horizon over several minutes, puffs of sand gently kicked up by their feet. This elemental narrative of bodies moving over a plane displaces the familiar tropes in a nominal telling of the Nativity trek of the Three Kings; Spanish writer-director Albert Serra, who explicitly abjures dramatic development, strips it down to the bone with just one businesslike angel, and the sun efficiently representing the Star of Bethlehem. Wide gaps in dialogue are filled with the natural sounds of windblown trees and grasses from largely barren Icelandic and French locations. When the kings do converse, their debates on what route to take and bickering over tight sleeping arrangements comically invoke Beckett and his American Borscht Belt cousins. (“Let’s go.” “I don’t think we can.” “If we know we can’t, there’s no use trying.”)
Once Serra’s done gazing at the trio in these undramatic friezes—focusing close-ups on the back of their crowned heads, their bulbous bodies dogpaddling from an underwater POV—he shifts to Mary and Joseph in a stone-hewn stable, again foregoing iconography in favor of the unremarkable couple tending a lamb and eating oranges, when their conversation isn’t merely heard over a nocturnal exterior view of their refuge. Serra’s time-stretching is at its most demanding here but prepares for the kings’ arrival as a true epiphany: When the soundtrack bursts into music a solitary time with Pau Casals’s “El Cant del Ocells” at the travelers’ prostration before the mother and child, Serra recalls the spare transcendence of Pasolini and Mahalia Jackson. Then the Magi leave, analyze dreams of devouring snakes in the beds they’ve made on a forest floor, and are seen ambiguously exulting in a long, silent finale. In his goal of eschewing plot and conventional characterization for a meditative immersion, Serra provides an essentially ambient experience from the platform of Christian myth. Does his vision offer divinely human mystery, minimalist opacity, or as with Carlos Reygadas’s recent Silent Light, a bit of both?