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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Comme les Mages en Galilée

by Jean Roy

“El Cant Dels Ocells”, by Albert Serra: Like the Magi in Galilee

Translated Saturday 24 May 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Quinzaine des réalisateurs: The author of "Honor de Cavalleria" is back with a film even more beautiful and crazy than the first.
Two years ago, Serra’s previous film "Honor de Cavalleria" was shown at the Quinzaine des réalisateurs [1] before its release - see Emile Breton’s later chronicle in “l’Humanité” on March 14, 2007 - and the entire time the delightful verbal encounter between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in a rather unpleasant set held us under a charm. This time, it is the other way round.

What first arrests our attention is the sublime beauty of the black and white, obtained with colour film, and the way it sets off the magnificence of the mountain scenery. The wind sweeps through the microphone as clouds race across. Three characters in warm, timeless clothing and wearing Twelfth Night paper crowns [2] are going on their way. The sea heaves in hefty rollers. Three men walk on the strand towards the mountain with every appearance of having to force their way against the elements. Nothing is said of the story, not a word has been uttered, and already the obvious debt to the art of the Straubs or Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Luke imposes itself upon the viewer’s mind with overpowering evidence. And the rest will show Pasollini to be the reference indeed.

He who was born is the son of God, we are told: the settings point back to the world’s very beginning (the shooting took place at Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands). The three men wonder which way they should go, whether they should turn back, walk uphill; they lie asleep side by side, complain about the inconvenience each is to the others; they set off walking again across a sand desert. And not a single indication is given about the place, the passage of time, or even their real business; even after a full half hour we eventually find no better names than Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar (despite the fact that they speak Catalan, when they do speak, and they seldom do). The three men then are eagerly waiting for the sun to rise, as the Magi themselves looked out for the star. In a little while a woman carrying a lamb in her arms will ask her husband Joseph if the child is asleep.

After an hour, the Magi arrive at their destination and bow down, the gesture being set off by the sudden use of music when there has been none so far. One of the Magi says: “The Romans will arrive some time this evening”, and Joseph says: “I’ve had a dream; an angel told me we must flee to Egypt.” A quarter of an hour later (the film might last twice as long and still be the same) one magus says: “We shall never come back; with all this sand it’s too hard.”

And that’s it!

With its use of a wide screen, of static shots (with very few exceptions), this contemplative, sensitive film takes us on a quest for the essence of cinema, even as its characters are questing for the essence of something else. This film ranks with the films of major importance in the Festival’s 61st edition.


[1] Directors’ Fortnight is an independent section held in parallel to the Cannes Film Festival. The section was created in 1969 after the events of May 1968, in which the Cannes festival was cancelled in solidarity with striking workers.
The Directors’ Fortnight showcases a programme of shorts and feature films as well as documentaries from all over the world.

[2] Whoever gets the "charm" hidden in the Twelfth Night ritual cake also wins the crown.

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