Time to return to Europe, and yet another classic. A contemporary classic, though. Spanish director Albert Serra is one of the regulars in Slow Cinema. Especially El cant dels ocells (2008) is often quoted, mainly because it contains an iconic scene in Slow Cinema: three characters walk away from the camera, disappear behind dunes, and return. The camera remains static and fixed on the dunes. You find a similar shot in Bélá Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011).
Serra is one of the oddballs among slow-film directors. Not at all in a bad way. Tsai Ming-liang is just as odd at times. The reason I say this is that these two filmmakers include comic elements into their films. Especially Serra is almost a comedian to me. He is not the type of filmmaker who dwells on the downfall of society, on pain, on suffering, on death. Watching slow films can be depressing at times. Serra, however, brings light into the area. His films are quite uplifting and a real joy – in many ways – to watch.
El cant dels ocells is beautifully shot. We’re following the Three Kings on their way to baby Jesus. This look at (somewhat) historical events is one of Serra’s trademarks. Neither of the two films released so far are set in the present. They have a definite temporal anchor to them, and they’re mostly well-known stories. In Birdsong (the international name of the film), it is the journey of the Three Kings. In his film Honour of the Knights (2006), Serra picks up the story of Don Quixote and Sancho. Story of my Death (2013), his latest film, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August this year, mixes Casanova and Dracula. There is thus a focus on iconic personalities, whether real or imaginary.
Birdsong is an example of how versatile in his filmmaking Serra is. For me, the techniques in Knights and Birdsong differ. They are roughly the same, but the feel of the two films is different. There is a greater sense of silence and vastness in Birdsong, which makes sense considered in what kind of time period it is set. In fact, Serra plays with sound in his film. There are scenes, such as when the Three Kings go for a swim and the camera is below the water surface, which are almost completely silent. You would expect a muffled sound, but there is predominantly silence.
I guess the film is more polished than others. The Three Kings walk through mountain valleys, and while the fast-moving shadows of the clouds indicate a strong wind, we cannot hear it to such an extent. This stands in contrast to Lav Diaz’s films, which are so unpolished that the sound of strong winds through the mic could potentially deafen you if you have turned the volume of the sound system too high. Both have their appeals and their uses. Diaz is known for his raw filmmaking. It’s his trademark in a way. Serra is different in this case.
The almost muted sounds and partial silence in scenes work well with the long and extreme long shots of really empty landscapes. They’re as empty as they can be. There is thus an image of peace and harmony evoked in the shots, and they’re supported by the sound. In addition, Birdsong is much more photographic than Knights. It’s one of those films that made me go “awwwwww” and my heart just opened. This is perhaps due to a change of cinematographers. It is important to mention in this context that Serra is a director, who is usually director only. And writer, and editor. But overall he tends to work with other people who are then responsible for, say, cinematography (decisively different from Lav Diaz, but this could be due to availability of funding).
Birdsong was shot in stark black-and-white. It is almost quite literally black and white, similar to what I mentioned in my blog post on Daughter…Father…Daughter. I suppose that special lighting and filters had been used. The use of monochrome aesthetics give the film a real historic touch. It also somewhat underlines the theme of emptiness in the film. Birdsong is still one of my favourites after all these years. The unique combination of photographic shots, emptiness, silence, and humour is one of a kind and whoever says that slow films can’t be entertaining: watch an Albert Serra film. A slow film can be entertaining!