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The Sky Turns

A scene from Mercedes Álvarez’s The Sky Turns. [Photo: New Yorker Films]

The Sky Turns 3.5 out of 4

star3-5

Near the northern border of Spain, just on the outskirts of the small town of Aldealseñor, about 50 miles to the west and north of Soria, two elderly men stand in a field and look at the stars, pondering themselves in the face of the universe. One leans on a stick and wears a cap, the other smokes with one hand in his pocket. "One day people will immigrate to Mars," one says, to which the other snorts, "You will not see it," and, ignoring him, the other continues, "There have been so many before that have looked to the sky," to which the other replies, "Well, if you are on the ground, it is unavoidable to look up."

Mercedes Álvarez was the last child ever born in that small town, Aldealseñor, and those two men are two of the 14 inhabitants left. Alverez's film, The Sky Turns, is the visual and aural chronicle of these lost people's waning years and the decline of a routine and rhythm that has existed for hundreds of seasons utterly undisturbed. The film is striking in its visual qualities; the uninterrupted views of the Spanish green hills and gray rock walls stretch on for miles in front of Alverez's lens, much like the lives of the villagers cascade out behind them through the pages of history, but it is truly these villagers which make the film worthy of note and praise. Their subtly dark, and most times sardonic conversations among themselves overpowers Alverez's poetic yet cryptic narration and makes for a rare honest-to-goodness look at just how miniscule the people of this Earth are when stood up next to the sands of time.

In another scene, Antonino Martínez and José Fernández hoe a graveyard with a practiced air and a motivation known only to them as the solid lines of the sun's rays light up the dust motes and tiny bugs that flit about them. They are dressed in a motley of sweaters, caps, and tweed, and work in silence for a time, with only the sound of the birds to keep their minds at ease. The shot lasts for some moments, and the perfection that Álvarez finds in these instances of accompanied solitude is mind-numbing. To think that these villagers truly exist apart in time, without any of the comforts that the modern man is addicted to is gravely humbling. Suddenly the men speak, their mouths barely moving, almost inaudible against the brilliance of the sun. "When they buried my Aunt…my uncle's head came out of the ground, it still had hair on it. Everyone said: Don't touch it!" says Antonino. "As if he would complain!" says José. There are noises between that might be laughter, but it is hard to tell. Antonino concludes: "Well, anyway, I picked it up and threw it in the bone yard."

Alverez's film is nearly brimming with chuckle-inducing existential aporia and wise old quips that are powerful enough to make these men smile in the face of death; Antonio and José may as well be sitting around waiting with DiDi and GoGo. Though these people may be lost and forgotten in 100 years, they are not afraid of this prospect and seem, rather, to embrace this fact, and own it, making it their inside joke, which Álvarez has fantastically gotten them to share to her camera. There's a certain self-awareness here that is uncanny and the spell these old souls cast seems to only be broken when the modern age intrudes on their serene village life. In a sad turn of events, the ancient castle in the distance where the girl who couldn't laugh used to live is being converted into a five-star hotel, which the villagers realize all to well that they will never be able to afford. Similarly, the local political trumpeters pull into the village in sleek hatchbacks with cone megaphones attached the roof, blaring modern music, and plastering ugly propaganda posters on the tan stucco walls of the old buildings; one of the old men, a cat, and a dog, wake up collectively from a nap as the young, self-righteous couple pulls in, but return to sleep just as quickly as the car pulls away. There is a realization in Aldealseñor that the modern world holds nothing of value to them, and nothing that they really care to understand anyway.

The Sky Turns follows the village Aldealseñor through four seasons and neatly breaks the long film up into quatrains of visual poetics, and much like time in the village falls away effortlessly so does the time spent watching the film. Though Alverez begins the movie with the story of her birth and almost immediate egress from the village with her family, her return is not a momentous occasion, but a moment of quiet introspection; it's merely another pockmark in the face Antonino Martínez who once threw his own Uncle's severed and rotted head over the graveyard wall, while it still had hair on it. After all, he says, "You rot quicker in the dirt."

Director(s): Mercedes Álvarez Screenwriter(s): Arturo Redin, Mercedes Álvarez Cast: Elías Álvarez , Mercedes Álvarez, Peio Azketa, Hicham Chate, Cirilo Fernández, José Fernández, Josefa García, Román García, Silvano García, Valentina García, Alfredo Jimeno, Crispina Lamata, Antonino Martínez, Blanca Martínez, Áurea Mingo Distributor: New Yorker Films Runtime: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2004

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