Crazed visionaries are something of an endangered species at the movies these days, so thank goodness for 33-year-old Spanish director Albert Serra, who follows up 2006’s minimalist Don Quixote riff, Honor de Cavalleria, with a similarly spare take on another hallowed tale: the birth of Jesus and the pilgrimage of the Three Wise Men. Refusing to fix what was never broken, Serra filmed Birdsong (El Cant des Ocells) in his favored deadpan style — albeit this time in gorgeous black-and-white — with nonprofessional actors (including his erstwhile Sancho and Quixote, Lluís Carbó and Lluís Serrat Masanellas) improvising in a mix of Catalan and Hebrew while trekking through the deserts and volcanic mountains of the Canary Islands. The Wise Men stop to empty sand from their shoes and, in the film’s most beguiling scene, to talk about their dreams. When an angel appears, the resolutely material image is like something out of Dreyer; an actual lamb appears as the Lamb of God. Earlier this year, when Serra’s film made its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it was met with one of the more contentious postscreening Q&A sessions I’ve ever witnessed at that characteristically docile, appreciative festival. “Why?” one clearly aggrieved viewer asked Serra, without feeling the need to elaborate. But after 90-odd minutes of the fearlessly original, sometimes transcendently beautiful Birdsong, I would have thought the answer to be obvious: “Why not?”
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In a typically offbeat piece of casting, Serra enlisted the Canadian film programmer and critic (and my longtime editor at Cinema Scope magazine) Mark Peranson to play Birdsong’s dyspeptic Joseph, and when Peranson wasn’t in front of the camera, he set about documenting the production for his own feature-length film, Waiting for Sancho, which makes its U.S. premiere alongside Birdsong in the AFI Fest program. (Conveniently, the screenings have been scheduled back-to-back for those who wish to double-dip.) As such “making of” chronicles go, it merits a place of distinction alongside Burden of Dreams and Lost in La Mancha for its portrait of an impassioned, uncompromising director who finds his greatest inspiration in the hazard zone between genius and total chaos. Fixed ideas are anathema, as Serra leads his small cast and crew into the breach with only the slightest outline of a screenplay. Keeping a conspicuous distance from his actors and his camera (which he rarely, if ever, looks through), he gives direction by walkie-talkie, sometimes dictating a line reading, more often throwing everyone off guard by shouting dada-ish gobbledygook: “Mother! Airport! Blowjob! Vicks VapoRub!” Yet for all its gonzo entertainment value, Waiting for Sancho is equally attuned to Serra’s warm affection for his collaborators and his concerted effort to achieve something radical and new in this century-old art form. Most revealing of all are those moments when Peranson cuts away to clips from Serra’s finished film, proving that, for all the joints and rigging Waiting for Sancho has exposed, the true nexus of artistic creation remains as elusive to the camera’s eye as does the exact moment when darkness becomes dawn. (Birdsong screens at ArcLight Hollywood, Sun., Nov. 2, 7 p.m. and Wed., Nov. 5, 1 p.m.; Waiting for Sancho screens at ArcLight Hollywood, Sun., Nov. 2, 9:50 p.m. and Wed., Nov. 5, 3:30 p.m.)