by Lesley Chow
Albert Serra’s Birdsong sits oddly within the Singapore International Film Festival’s programming mix. Even in a festival with several austere dramas, this Spanish director’s work is on another level of aesthetic minimalism. Although the stated aim of the festival founder, Geoffrey Malone, is seeing “another side of the human condition” and “transporting us into” other worlds where we may see “we are not so badly off after all” – some of Amos Gitai’s films certainly fit the bill on that count – Serra’s films don’t oblige.
While the program tells us that Sincerely Yours, a drama about poor immigrants in Taiwan, is “in essence about…the celebration of the human spirit”, Birdsong is by comparison unrevealing – less of a “window” on the world than a large tonalist canvas, a work of minimalist landscape art. I find Serra’s films to be textured like Constable’s paintings of clouds, with their shots of near-stillness and ghostly, evaporating atmospheres. Occasionally, his images seem to “lock” onscreen: to go from being part of a formal procession to an inability to budge, as if the impetus for action had suddenly been removed. Serra’s work has a kind of slow-pulling momentum which becomes hypnotic; however, some find the inertia frustrating – his previous film, Honor de Cavalleria (2006), a reworking of Don Quixote, sparked walkouts at the Melbourne International Film Festival when an image failed to shift for more than a minute.
Birdsong is a dried-out version of the tale of the three wise men, similar to Honor de Cavalleria’s extreme reduction of Don Quixote to a bare stage and faltering signs of heroism. The three men trudge around a landscape of mountains and rocky formations, the severity of which suggests that this is “all there is.” That they are kings we can tell from their broken crowns and the cloaks that balloon awkwardly around their bodies, but their bearing is far from regal. These are tentative old men, who occasionally work themselves up to hoarse whispers or exhalations; when they do confer, it’s generally to muse on their own stagnation and inability to come to a decision. Like Beckett, Serra shows ineffectual bodies set against stony landscapes; the men are seemingly directionless and grumbling in their search for the baby Jesus. Their attempts to read the blank, motionless sky and earth come to nothing; their figures are often reduced to dark buds bobbing above a white plain. When “transcendence” does arrive, it takes on a startlingly didactic form: a strange, intense woman pops up from nowhere, and bluntly tells us that Christian doctrine is unquestionable.
The three men lie around hoping for a plot to materialise, as attempts at sticking to the Biblical narrative fall off track. Even Mary and Joseph, who ostensibly have more defined roles to play, are not free from apathy; Joseph lazily asks the time of day, and wonders what Mary feels like doing. Clearly, character motivation is not something which communicates itself to these people, except in odd fits and starts. Nevertheless, even in this opaque world, a coup does occur (spoilers ahead.) During an idle moment, the men suddenly come across Jesus and plop down their offerings for him; in a rare instance of synchronicity, all three hail the infant and prostrate themselves, having apparently worked out a gestural code beforehand. However – in another nod to Beckett – once they lie down, they seem to have little inclination to get up, and may well have fallen asleep.
An interesting choice for SIFF: after seeing a number of determinedly small family and relationship dramas, it’s refreshing to encounter something on this scale of stylistic ambition. The SIFF promo screened before films urges us to make the most basic of character identifications: to empathise with “the fiancé that cannot say no…the girl who sits alone at lunch.” However, it may be that, as in so many film festivals, the use of generic marketing language is a red herring, leading us to expect a more conventional program than SIFF delivers. The sold-out session of Birdsong is evidence that local audiences know to read between the lines.