The signature shot of Albert Serra’s Birdsong is a lengthy take in which the Three Wise Men traverse an unbroken white expanse. The group wearily treads for minutes under the gaze of an implacable, stationary camera until something odd happens: they start to disappear into the bleached landscape. After a few more minutes, their hats pop up on the horizon and we see the men march, seemingly out of the earth, in a direction contrapuntal to the one in which they’d initially been walking. Serra has cleverly used the geography in his shot in conjunction with his black-and-white palette to trick our eyes. It’s an effect akin to those simple optical illusions that confuse and overload our poor, beleaguered human vision—white crosses in striped fields, closely stacked black lines radiating out from a common center, images flickered in rapid succession.
The act of seeing is gently taxed throughout Serra’s second feature. Attuned to the rhythms of a very specific brand of art cinema, a loose taxonomy that includes folks like Bela Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos, and Carlos Reygadas, Birdsong is constructed almost entirely of static shots where human action is dwarfed by monumental, monochromatic landscapes; largely lacking in dialogue, Serra’s take on the journey of the Magi to visit the newborn baby Jesus breathes travel, exploration, and perhaps a bit of deism as well. One imagines a small team off in the wilderness conjuring the film, literally from the ground up, instead of working from extensive preplanning. It all might get terribly heady and mystical, if Serra weren’t a bit of a comedian as well.