A heartening sign of the kind of movie—idiosyncratic, surprising, youthful, romantic—that this year's Berlinale has chosen to spotlight in the main competition, Alexandre Koberidze’s second film, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a true delight. A substantial yet effortless work, and only the second film by Koberdize, following his audacious four-hour debut, Let the Summer Never Come Again, it confirms the Georgian director as a major talent.
Taking place in the sun-drenched city of Kutaisi along the roaring Rioni River, it tells a fable of a meet-cute between a boy and girl, Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and Lisa (Ani Karseladze), who immediately feel the pull of love, but for whom the evil eye will disrupt their union. Each wakes up the day of their first date looking completely different (now played by Giorgi Bochorishvili and Oliko Barbakadze, respectively), and bereft of their most valuable knowledge (for the pharmacist Lisa, it’s medicine; for Giorgi, it is soccer). Befuddled and lost in their new identities, they show up at their rendezvous but miss each other; each then takes a job nearby, forever close at hand but never realizing the other is there.
To this spare, charming short story Koberidze makes several unexpected decisions: There is little dramatic dialogue in the film, as most interactions are anecdotal and viewed at a slight remove; the director actively narrates his story and his character’s concerns in voiceover; the lovely music, much of it original by Giorgi Koberidze, the director’s brother, moves the story smoothly; and the narrative is as interested in peripheral characteristics of Kutaisi as it is in the fate of its romantic couple. These digressions center on the children of the city, who we see in the streets, after school, and at play; the city’s dogs, given names and personalities; teens as friends and in love; an older filmmaking couple who are on the search for real couples in love on the city streets in order to finish their long-gestating film project; and soccer, which is nearly everywhere in the film. The World Cup anchors the passage of time through the story, and the game’s combination of skill, chance, and the interplay of others around you underscore key themes that softly touch the film’s love story.
All these bits of character are given nearly as much attention as the central fable, which fleshes the film out to a novelistic two-and-a-half-hours that never feels slow and yet is never in a rush. Sometimes loping along, sometimes lilting, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? has the rare quality of an ever-fresh strangeness. You’re never quite sure what will happen next, or to what or whom it will devote its attention, and yet the movie is utterly nonchalant about this unfettered approach. Because of this, we are kept at a distance from Lisa and Giorgi’s suspended love affair; theirs is not a story of melodrama, but of life’s required patience and all the everyday things—some funny, some sad, some sweet and poetic—that place themselves along its path. This unique spontaneity, with its tone of playful wistfulness, of gently waiting for the constellations of the world to align properly, all the while bathed in plenty of golden lighting, is not burdened by the alienating or off-putting characteristic of most art cinema that forges its own path. Instead, this special film rises to meet you, eager to show you new things.