“Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” – Rebecca Solnit
British Poet Percy Bysse Shelley said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” This sense of seeing the world newly permeates Georgian director Aleksandre Koberidze’s (“Let the Summer Never Come Again”) What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt?), a lovely cinematic tone poem that bounces between playful fantasy and documentary-like realism. Winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the recent Berlinale, in its two and a half-hour run time, Koberidze celebrates the country of Georgia and the city of Kutaisi including extended montages showing joy on the faces of small children, slow-motion choreographed rhythm of a soccer game, and the eternal power of two human beings to find magic in each other’s presence.
In a seemingly chance encounter, a young man, Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), a local football star, and a young woman, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), a pharmacist, while walking in opposite directions, meet awkwardly when she drops her book and he bends to pick it up for her. The sequence is shot only from the knees down so their faces and its expressions are left to our imagination. Constantly retracing their steps and repeatedly bumping into each other, they discover they have chemistry together and agree to meet the next day for lunch at a café (though thoughtlessly neglecting to find out the other person’s name). On Lisa’s walk home, however, the force is with her, changing the trajectory of her life as well as that of her new friend.
Ordinary objects such as a traffic light, a drainpipe, and the wind, become transmitters of the force, what the narrator (voiced by the director) describes as the “evil eye.” Only the loud motor of a passing car prevents her from hearing the most important detail. Not only will their physical appearance drastically change by the next morning, they will also lose the skills they had worked their whole lives to attain. Lisa, now played by another first-time actress Ani Karseladze, is no longer able to remember her medical school education and Giorgi (Giorgi Bochorishvili, “Adam & Eve”) is unable to even kick a soccer ball over a short fence.
Koberidze calls our attention to their transformation not by employing technological wizardry, but by inviting the viewer to become a participant, beginning with the command “Attention!” prominently displayed on the screen. This is followed by the instruction to look away on the first sound and look back only on the second, engaging the viewer in the mystery of how the real nature of our world is always invisible. Koberidze said that he was “looking to mess with the viewer’s perception,” and that “sometimes you are required to be active and sometimes you can relax — almost like a child hearing a bedtime story.”
The main focus of the film is the effect that sudden change has on Lisa and Giorgi. Author and essayist Rebecca Solnit said, “To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery,” and that is where Lisa and Giorgi find themselves. Sadly, when they meet at the café at the agreed-upon time, neither recognizes the other. As she takes a job at the café and he directs a strongman challenge on the bridge opposite the café, the Soccer World Cup begins and we find out the different viewing points in the city where locals (including the dogs with their intriguingly provided names) gather to watch the matches.
While What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? moves slowly, it does not drag but, like mindfulness meditation, allows us to be present to the things of beauty we see each day but never recognize. Koberidze has said that “I think one of the purposes of cinema is to help bring us closer to a hidden rhythm, to the flow of time. One — but not the only — way to achieve this is to observe your surroundings while hearing music.” The director’s brother (also Giorgi) score brings us closer to this rhythm, adding even more playfulness and enchantment to each scene: The faces of children coming home from school, celebrating the start of the World Cup by painting the name of Argentine soccer star Messi on their backs in yellow, and the sight of a soccer ball bouncing merrily, merrily down a swiftly flowing river telling us that life is but a dream.
Mundane events call our attention to the things in our life we usually take for granted. Thoreau said, “Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Lisa visits the music school looking for one of the teachers that can lift her curse; they go to the house in the countryside where she and Giorgi pick up a birthday cake. There is an entrancing slow motion montage of children practicing the game of soccer to the sounds of the 1990 World Cup song, “Notti Magiche,” a magical interlude that tells us all we need to know about the natural state of being without the layers that have been added to it, things that Rilke declared “have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied.”
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky can be classified (by those determined to classify everything) as fantasy or magic realism, in its essence, it defies categorization. While some of the depictions in the film flirt with the pretentious or even nonsensical, in Koberidze’s world, everything becomes real and truly alive. While most of us see ourselves as an identity defined by what we look like, what we may do for a living, and our relations with each other, it is only when Lisa and Giorgi wake up the next morning without their football uniform and laboratory coat and with completely changed physical features do they begin to understand that identity is more a function of a deeper sense of who we really are beyond our present physical form. As Koberidze asserts, “Then happened, what had to happen.” If we open our eyes, this is what we will see when we look at the sky.