Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 158
Aleksandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? plays at the Northwest Film Forum Nov. 24 & Nov. 26-28.
Because this is an unusual year for me as a film critic, I have many movies to catch up on between now and the end of the year, when the tallying of a Ten Best List will happen—the annual exercise of a compulsion to order things, an extension of the madness of loving movies. I have every hope that I will meet a few masterpieces during that time. Until those come along, I feel comfortable in saying that What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is my #1 movie of 2021, and has been since I saw it (remotely) on the critics’ jury at the Berlin Film Festival in March, when our FIPRESCI jury gave it out top award in the Competition category.
Because these Seasoned Ticket entries are meant to be a “Critic’s Notebook,” I thought that instead of writing some kind of in-depth piece, which I can’t do anyway because it’s been too long since I saw the movie, I would approach with a series of notes—impressions about the movie, interspersed with italicized jotted-down scraps from my actual notebook while I was watching the film. For instance:
group of young people walking home at dawn after café
This strikes me as appropriate enough, because What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? sometimes feels like a collection of pages from a journal, or snapshots from a roll of Kodachrome—the movie actually looks like the warmth of film, rather than a shiny digital show, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
soccer ball in a field of buttercups
The film is a love letter to Kutaisi, which I guess is the second city of Georgia, but for this film’s purposes is a magical place—as any city could be if seen through the insightful eye of an artist—yet also a place that exists in hard reality. How Aleksandre Koberidze gets that unusual blend is a marvel, and I think it has something to do with the idea that every place is a symphony, if only you really look.
long shot at night, another meeting, a narrator chimes in
In brief, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is about two people, med student Lisa and soccer player Giorgi, who meet accidentally (yet maybe with a nudge of destiny), agree to meet again, but are (this happens during a night’s sleep) physically transformed into different-looking people. They did not exchange names. How can they recognize each other when they meet at a café at a pre-arranged time? They can’t, and don’t, and leave disappointed.
Lisa is “spoken to” by a seedling, surveillance camera, and old drainpipe, warning her of “evil eye”
After their unfulfilled encounter, the two new-looking people go their ways about town, with many digressions to fill the movie’s 150 minutes. Complication: the new Lisa can’t remember her medical studies and has to quit her job as a pharmacist, and Giorgi loses his football skills.
nuts on a kitchen table
The two people are thus forced into different modes, opening up their lives to random encounters and experiences, which the movie allows in like breezes drifting through apartment windows as people wonder what to do with their day.
homemade pastry in café at night & click of photographer’s camera
Or like dogs loping through a town square. It doesn’t take long for the movie to start allowing in these aeolian elements, and you can feel that Koberidze is playing with the form of film, in ways that might also be connected with the narrator’s frequent reminders of the world’s harshness and social imbalance, which loom in the background of these enchanted slivers of Kutaisi life.
dogs going to watch World Cup
But these pieces, the intimate/lyrical and the political, have rarely co-existed with such balance. Seemingly casual, yet committed. And despite the film’s languid forward motion, the thing builds to a forceful, well-hell-I-didn’t-expect-that-either conclusion.
a bakery in the countryside? rural: a view across the valley as people gather for cake
But I gave the game away with the word “enchanted.” This movie is a spell, an enchantment sustained; what we see when we look at the sky will change after watching this movie, because it’s one of those films that show you how to see.
the SOUNDS of a music conservatory/taking time to watch a boy cover a xylophone
Is this my kind of movie? Well, yes. Koberidze’s film is my idea of why cinema exists, as you can probably guess from the kinds of notes I take during a movie screening. Its subject is the world we live in, but also the cinema itself. Magic and psychology. Balance and imbalance. Plans and chaos. There is more to say, but for now notebooking, and gratitude, will have to do.
café: Sun blots out the screen
November 19, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.