Two years after The Nativity Story and Spanish/Catalan director Albert Serra produced El cant dels ocells (Birdsong). In contrast to The Nativity Story which sought to position itself as a new, family friendly take on the epic in the hope of reproducing the success of The Passion of the Christ, Birdsong deliberately took almost the opposite approach. Just as Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo opposed 50s and 60s Biblical Epics such as King of Kings, so Birdsong can be seen as an antidote to the excesses of The Passion. Rather than the cast of thousands Birdsong had a cast of just six. Instead of excessive, lavish sets the film is nearly all filmed outside on deserted landscapes. There are no moral victories, promises of sex, or analogies between the past and the future, indeed the line between the two is somewhat blurred. Birdsong is essentially an anti-epic.
This 'anti-epic' style is typical of Serra's broader body of work, "a cinema of gentle observation and slow demeanour, in which eccentric characters incarnated by non-professional actors bring new dimensions to well-known fictional and religious archetypes". (Delgado 2013: 12) Two years earlier he had produced a similarly sparse version of the Don Quixote story Honor de Cavelleria (2006) and his 2013 film Història de la meva mort (Story of my Death) similarly drained the stories of Cassanova and Dracula of their melodramatic excesses.
Serra's work is just one example of "a new kind of cinema that exists on the margins of the Spanish film industry, to question its premises." (Javier 2014: 95-96) Javier suggests that films such as this "create images that seem to resist the recent explosion of our current 'multi-screen' reality. As opposed to the 'excess image' dominating screens in the contemporary world, this cinema opts wholeheartedly for simplicity and restraint". (2014: 96) Nowhere does this movement contrast more greatly that with the excess of the Biblical Epic.
The most obvious indicator of this is Serra's long, static takes, reminiscent of the style of Roberto Rossellini's later films. Rossellini held that by minimising artificial, and potentially manipulative, editing, not only created more genuine films, but it also reminds the viewer that what they are watching is just a reconstruction, not the real thing. Such long static takes, beautiful compositions and minimal soundtrack make the viewing the film not unlike that of viewing paintings in a gallery. Serra treat his audience to incredible image after incredible image, somehow investing each with great meaning from very little.
Instead of putting the film in context and recounting all the events surrounding Jesus' birth, or even just covering the complete story of the magi's journey, Serra "reduces the symbolic journey of the Three Wise Men to the characters' simple wanderings through stark mountainous areas or across wide open plains where they are mere blots on the landscape and, on many occasions, actually disappear from view". (Javier 2014: 97). Such a portrayal of these "solitary wanderings undermine narrative momentum, inviting the viewer to contemplate, in silent long takes, images of the empty landscape he traverses" (De Luca 2012: 194). The "temporal elongation of the shot surpasses by far the demands of the story". (2013: 193)
Indeed, so low key is the film's aesthetic that the story's most iconic moment can almost creep up on the viewer without them really noticing. When the kings finally find the Christ child there is no crowd of curious onlookers. The holy family are on their own; their visitors lacking in an entourage. This is s a genuine moment of earthly royalty encountering divine royalty without the pantomime that usually accompanies such encounters. Serra produces "a moment of pure reverence, highlighted by the film's only instance of non-diegetic music, when the three men finally prostrate themselves before the mother and child, and the family's private life takes on monumental significance." (O'Brien 2011: 109-110)
It is this moment that most captures "the tradition of Dreyer, Rossellini [and] Pasolini" as the director intended. (Hughes) It's an understated moment that rather than relying on pomp, ceremony, a powerful soundtrack and over-wrought acting performances is built on the slow realism of al that has gone before it. It not only brings to mind the climaxes of Dreyer's Ordet (The Word, 1955), Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) and the moment when Christ is removed from the cross in Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), but extends the tradition.
Part of the reason this strategy is successful is the way it humanises the three kings, going further than even Pasolini dared. They hide from the rain, put their quest on hold to go for a swim and they even seem to get lost at one point. They even bicker over which way to go, each trying to nudge the others into making the decision so they can escape blame if the plan fails. Yet despite this, the film still leaves them shrouded in mystery. We know not what motivates them and drives them on their pilgrimage, yet somehow the characters are very engaging.
Serra also sees something "absurd" in the characters' mission.
All of the ideology, what Jesus means, we added later. We’re talking about the pioneers. Just three men who probably feel stupid, you know? They don’t know why they are going to see this child, or where they’re going, or how long it will take. They’re following a star to find a small child in order to adore him. (Hughes 2009)This forms an interesting contrast with the approach in The Nativity Story. Both films seek to inject humour by portraying three men who have come to be known as wise, acting like ordinary people. Yet in Birdsong this is done without revealing a great deal about who these men are or stripping away the mystery; in contrast, in The Nativity Story, everything is explained, the characters are given names, backstories and motivations, yet both the humour and the attempt to draw parallels between us and them falls flat.
Just two years, then, after New Line had produced the first Nativity epic, this film becomes the first Nativity 'anti-epic'. A tendency that would be repeated twice more in the following decade in Little Baby Jesus of Flandr (2010) and Le Fils de Joseph (Son of Joseph, 2016).
Delgado, Maria. M. (2013), 'Introduction', in M. M. Delgado and R. W. Fiddian (eds.), Spanish Cinema 1973-2000: Auteurism, Politics, Landscape and Memory, 1-20, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
De Luca, Tiago. (2012), 'Realism of the Senses: A Tendency in Contemporary World Cinema' in Lúcia Nagib, Chris Perriam, Rajinder Dudrah (eds.) Theorizing World Cinema,183-206, London: I.B Tauris.
Hughes, Darren (2009), 'Albert Serra Interviewed on El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong)', Senses of Cinema. Available online: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/conversations-on-film/albert-serra-interview/(accessed 22/4/2017).
Moral, Javier. (2014), 'Behind the Enigma Construct: A Certain Trend in Spanish Cinema' in Duncan Wheeler, Fernando Canet (eds.), (Re)viewing Creative, Critical and Commercial Practices in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, 93-104, Bristol: Intellect Books.
O'Brien, Catherine. (2011), The Celluloid Madonna: from Scripture to Screen. London, U.K. : Wallflower Press.
O'Brien, Catherine (2016) 'Women in the Cinematic Gospels'. In: Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, (ed.) The Bible in Motion : a Handbook of the Bible and its Reception in Film, vol. 2, 449-462, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.