What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
Rating **** Masterpiece
Directed by Alexandre Koberidze
It is tremendously difficult to make a successful feature film that consists more-or-less solely of optimism. Partly due to the demands of narrative, and in large part the more visibly perilous state of the world, there has been a shift towards, if not cynicism, then an ambivalence that reflects society on the edge, whether it be in the apocalyptic superhero films or the much smaller yet equally precarious works on the festival circuit.
Enter What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?: a two-and-a-half-hour romance-turned-city-symphony that is filled with nothing but compassion for its characters, their fellow dwellers, and the space that they live in. Aside from the pivotal turn of fate that forms what little conventional story there is, and certain allusions to disasters just outside the camera’s point of view, Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature — after the three-and-a-half-hour, Sony Ericsson-shot Let the Summer Never Come Again — is content to survey the simple pleasures in life: reading, beer, filmmaking, and most of all association football (soccer), which is tantamount to sacred tradition in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia. And yet, Koberidze’s sheer exuberance of expression and invention makes this far more than the placid or dull observation that such a description might suggest: this is a thoroughly alive film, moving through the everyday with an irrepressible energy.
To say that this is a plotless film wouldn’t be accurate, however. What We Do We See may diverge almost entirely from its inciting incident, but it relies on it — in a manner not too dissimilar from the hammock cinema of Apichatpong — to give it its shape and ultimate resolution. In the opening twenty minutes of the film, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), a pharmacist, and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), a football player, literally bump into each other on their way to their respective professions; upon meeting a second time at night, they agree to meet each other the next day at a new outdoor café, and leave without exchanging means of communication — while the film appears to take place in the modern day, there are no cell phones, and apparently only a few televisions in the whole city.
The next time the two of them speak takes place a full hour and twenty minutes after this first interaction, and in the meantime everything has changed: due to a curse cast by an “evil eye,” the two of them have been given totally new appearances — and are now played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili, respectively — and have lost the ability to perform their professions. While both of them show up to their rendez-vous, they fail to recognize each other — despite Lisa, in the first of countless whimsical touches, being warned of elements of this curse by a seedling, a surveillance camera, and a drain pipe. The two of them subsequently take jobs working for the café owner, she at the ice cream machine and he at an amusing series of carnivalesque games, including a pull-up bar that nets anyone who can hold on for two minutes a prize.
From what might be a slowly deflating balloon in lesser hands, What Do We See truly develops into a study of the most pleasurable sort, all purported digressions which in actuality function as the lifeblood of the film. This is heralded, as in many of the great portraits of community, by song, courtesy of a group of teenagers sitting at the café at that night when Lisa and Giorgi both make and miss their meeting. The camera pans across, often catching a person who is merely listening, at the periphery of the conversation and revelry, another lonely soul like the two would-be lovers.
To recount the bounties of What Do We See would take a much longer piece than this, but aside from the delightful framing device of the World Cup, with Giorgi’s favored Argentina and Messi as the focal point, it is worth emphasizing the role of the narrator, which appears to be directly from Koberidze’s perspective. First emerging as a handy, voluble expositor of the narrative events, especially ones taking place just offscreen, he morphs into something of a tour guide for Kutaisi, introducing the viewer to the various denizens, human and not: the dogs of the city are recurring characters, and of course they also love football, down to favoring specific venues to watch the World Cup. And even more winningly, Koberidze treats the secondary characters with a watchful interest: the café owner, a profit-minded but fair man; a filmmaker looking to photograph couples to complete the five-year filming of her amusingly named project Stray Dogs Caressed by the Wind; and various other characters, some only glimpsed as recurring threads throughout the film; indeed, there is a paucity of dialogue; the majority of talking is likely relegated to the voiceover.
What persists strongest in What Do We See is Koberidze’s inflection of the seemingly mundane. Even the central twist is downplayed as much as possible: there are no investigations by Lisa or Giorgi’s family or former employers, and after a few inquiries everyone they interact with simply accepts them as who they are, with no name or prior history required. Koberidze’s style — and, it’s worth noting, his brother Giorgi’s pleasingly multivalent score — thus exists in the moment, malleable and open to whatever the scene or sequence requires: a Bressonian close-up here, an extreme wide-shot there, a raucous montage over here.
Said montage takes place just before the Part 1/2 dividing point, and represents perhaps the film’s most inventive — save the utterly delightful exhortation to the audience just before the curse occurs — and soaring moment: it consists solely of slow-motion shots of children playing football accompanied by the 1990 FIFA World Cup anthem, simultaneously seeming to conform to and defiantly move away from notions of screen action and sports filming. It is totally unclear who is on what side, and the sequence ends with a truly sepulchral series of shots as the children watch in awe as the ball soars into the air before landing in the river that runs through Kutaisi. The narrator’s voice comes in after this, discussing the problems that the world is facing, but even he is befuddled by the events of the film at the end, acknowledging the limits of his perspective. No matter: what lingers and moves is the experience, the meandering yet thoroughly energizing tributaries that exist along the way.