The title of What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? poses a question without demanding an answer. The film has a roving eye, but it doesn’t pay any particular attention to the sky. Over its unhurried two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it studies a great deal of the Georgian city of Kutaisi — sidewalk businesses, the Rioni River, the lives of stray dogs, and especially the comings and goings of various children. The question is not to prompt you to look specifically at the sky, but just to look. What will you see around you, if you take time out of your day to observe? The emphasis on kids is key; director Alexandre Koberidze invites the viewer to take on a childlike point of view. Not childish, as in immature or undeveloped, but childlike, open to the mundane wonder around us.
The cinematography, all filtered through languid 16mm that emphasizes sumptuous summertime yellows and greens, also encourages this perspective. The camera spends a great deal of time studying people’s legs and feet. A recurring motif sees characters introduced from the knees down, before the next shot shows the rest of them. Even main characters Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) first appear this way as they have a meet-cute, bumping into each other and so distracted by their mutual attraction that they both take a wrong turn, straying from their intended destinations. Their romance forms the backbone of the story — it isn’t quite right to call it the whole story, though, since much more of the film is given over to its excursions throughout the city than to developing their relationship.
This is because, again befitting the childlike spirit, this is no ordinary love story, but a magic realist fairy tale. (This sensibility is reinforced by the fact that the film has far more voiceover narration, read by the director, than it does spoken dialogue.) Shortly after they arrange to have a date, the “evil eye” sets itself on Lisa and Giorgi. Lisa is told by a tree seedling, a surveillance camera, and an old rain gutter that a curse has come upon her, and she will wake up the next morning with a whole new appearance. The wind also tries to warn her that Giorgi will likewise change form, but its voice is drowned out by a passing car. And so when Lisa (now played by Ani Karseladze) and Giorgi (now Giorgi Bochorishvili) attempt to make their date, they don’t recognize one another. To make matters worse, they have both completely forgotten everything to do with their respective professions — Lisa is a pharmacist but now knows nothing about medicine, and Giorgi is a footballer but now can’t perform even a basic kick. The pair settle in to new, lower-paying gigs tantalizingly close to each other, and the film’s many observations of everyday life then unfold while we wait for them to reunite.
While various elements of a traffic intersection coming alive to speak a character may sound random, it reinforces the movie’s overarching theme of the relationship between a city and its inhabitants. This scene is also one of several featuring an extreme wide shot — a look not at the sky but from it. This again suggests that the point is not to answer the question of the film’s title, but to be aware of everything. Here the camera is a transparent eyeball, and this is as a rare example of cinema in the tradition of transcendentalism.
On paper all this might sound overtly cloying, but What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? sets up this wide-eyed survey of the fantastical in the ordinary without even a hint of pretension. It’s one of the few films that can accurately be described as unlike most others, full of little moments not quite like anything we’ve been trained to expect. Take, for example, Lisa’s physical transformation. As the camera looks at her sleeping, the narrator asks the audience to close their eyes when a tone sounds, and to keep them closed until after a second tone. This is how the actors are swapped out — no computer effects, but also not a simple dissolve transition from the night closing in to the next day beginning. Koberidze is asking for your participation in the film’s idea of magic. If you’re the kind of person to cooperate with such a whimsical proposition, then this might be the movie for you.
What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is now available to stream on MUBI.