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Review: Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

The film is an offbeat epic informed by a reverence for the past and a delicate wariness toward the future.

2.5
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Writer-director Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a city symphony composed in a digressive key, an offbeat epic informed by a reverence for the past and a delicate wariness toward the future. Set in the ancient Georgian town of Kuitsai, where history seems to smile on traditions both new and old, the film stages a meet-cute soon thwarted by an instance of uncanny magic and treats that disappointment like a minor event, an opportunity to gaze at one’s home with a fresh perspective.

Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) first meet outside the gate of a primary school, bumping into each other twice in quick succession, in a shot where we only see them up to their knees. A series of brief scenes, wedded by elegant dissolves, show them at work: She’s a pharmacist, and he’s a soccer player. That evening, they run across each other again, and this time they’re filmed from a great distance away, two indistinct shapes surrounded by tungsten houselights and hills in the distance. They arrange a date the following day, but on her way home, a voiceover (delivered by Koberidze himself) explains that Lisa has been cursed by the “evil eye,” and her appearance will change the next morning.

She learns this from what the narrator calls her “friends,” objects on the street such a seedling and a rain gutter. Due to the sound of traffic, she doesn’t hear a warning from the wind, which meant to impress on Lisa that Giorgi’s appearance would also change, and the two aspiring lovers are doomed never to meet. Before Lisa transforms, on-screen text and a countdown calls us to “attention” and requests that we close our eyes before a dissolve to morning, where Lisa is now played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi by Giorgi Bochorishvili.

This is essentially the only substantial plot point in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, though fans of Argentina’s national soccer team may disagree. Koberidze threads outdoor viewing events of World Cup games throughout the film, and invents a tournament where the Argentine squad is able to capture the trophy with the help of their greatest player, Lionel Messi. (A Messi-led Argentina lost in the 2014 World Cup final.) Giorgi is one of many Messi fans in the film, and he awakens after his transformation to find that his skills as a soccer player no longer exist; likewise, Lisa can no longer remember a thing about medicine. They take these seismic ruptures in stride, and both gravitate toward new work under the same boss (Vakhtang Panchulidze), the owner of a new outdoor café looking to capitalize on the World Cup by installing a projector and screen on the premises.

From here, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? sprawls amiably through the remainder of its 150-minute runtime, its attention growing less and less tethered to Lisa and Giorgi, and more to ancillary characters (and occasionally animals) that happen to pass by them. These digressions are also interrupted by messages from our narrator, who pauses to mourn things like the threat to wildlife due to hunting and climate change.

The tone is reminiscent of the heavily mediated films of Miguel Gomes, as is the gorgeous 16mm and digital photography by Faraz Fesharaki, where the daytime ambience has the slightly desaturated luster of an Éric Rohmer film and the nocturnal scenes are a chiaroscuro of industrial streetlights and apartment windows tinted with orange lamplight. The dexterity of Fesharaki’s framing (equal parts off-kilter framing and handsomely framed long shots that give a strong sense of Kuitsai’s georgraphy) is matched by Giorgi Koberidze’s score, which strikes notes of romance, longing, and humor with a battery of harp and woodwinds.

With its abundant curiosity and patience, the film has a whimsy that could be described as impish were it not so suffused with warmth and generosity. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? arrives at its intermission by playing Gianna Nannini’s 1990 World Cup anthem “Notti Magiche” in full to a montage of children playing soccer, and also relays the story of two dogs who, like our protagonists, flit in and out of the movie and are meant to have a date later.

As rigorous and striking as the film’s images and sounds are, Koberidze’s eagerness to explore nearly everyone and everything in the frame can be wearying. A late subplot involving a crew of filmmakers working on a movie about couples manages to rekindle some curiosity about the connection between and potential fate of Lisa and Giorgi as a couple, but by this point it has long become clear that the film is content to proceed on its own idiosyncratic wavelength, marveling at the mundane in a tenor that’s admirably romantic, if not quite infectious.

Cast: Ani Karseladze, Giorgi Bochorishvili, Oliko Barbakadze, Giorgi Ambroladze, Vakhtang Panchulidze Director: Alexandre Koberidze Screenwriter: Alexandre Koberidze Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 150 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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