With a sprawling two-and-a-half-hour runtime, a main story kept perpetually on low heat, and a wandering camera gaze that drifts around the Georgian city of Kutaisi, Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is the gentlest cinematic epic to come around in some time. It all starts with a chance encounter between a pharmacist and a soccer player that results not only in a date for the next night but also a curse that will forever alter their appearances and personalities. The two would-be lovers each wake up the next morning in a different body and, at a loss as to how to find each other, start loitering around the outdoor bar where they agreed to meet.
More than an inciting incident, this image of two lovers losing each other and themselves is an apt reflection of the sort of impression the film leaves on its viewers—a calm sensation of chancing into the unknown and the surprising. Vivid scenes of action and rest pile on top of each other weightlessly like sights on a long summer’s walk: a slow-motion children’s soccer game set to the 1990 Italian World Cup anthem, a request to purchase a birthday cake which results in a lengthy countryside sojourn on an idyllic farm.
The tone of the film is as loving and lyrical as it sounds, with Koberidze weaving together an impressionistic camera-language that is understated and elusive—the couple’s first meeting is shown only through a close-up of their feet, while their second encounter is given an extreme wide-shot at nighttime—while also bristling with ebullient, documentary-esque portraiture of Kutaisi, from long close-ups of children’s faces as they wait for ice cream to a study of the way laundry is hung on a windy day. The result is a film full of fantasy that is more calming than exciting, quietly exuding a simple love for the world which never comes for you all at once, but slowly lifts you up over time.
These poetic textures arise not only from Kozebridze’s rhythmic editing and geometric framing, but from the ever-present narrator, who relates the majority of the film’s goings-on through a calmly delivered commentary full of wondrous detail. “Dog Mertskhala wanted to watch the world cup at the bar by the red bridge,” the narrator cooly intones in one of many periodic asides. “That’s why he did not meet dog Vardy, who didn’t want to go there. We’ll find out later why not.” This straightforwardness characterizes much of the dialogue, as well, and so becomes a defining tone of the film itself: dry, measured, matter-of-fact, and completely transcendent.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? shows in a preview screening tonight, November 6, at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series “What We See: New Georgian Cinema.” It opens November 12 at Metrograph and FLC via Mubi.