'What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?': Film Review | Berlin 2021

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky
Courtesy of Faraz Fesharaki/DFFB
We see a highly accomplished work of cinematic art.

Alexandre Koberidze’s Berlinale competition entry is a wondrous romance from Georgia.

There’s a brief shot early on in Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze’s wondrous romance and Berlinale competition entry What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Ras vkhedavt, rodesac cas vukurebt?) that might seem to illustrate something quite mundane.

The male protagonist’s soccer practice session has ended. Koberidze chooses the locker room as the location for the scene, as indeed most filmmakers might. But what makes the shot unexpected is that all that we see is an anonymous corner of the locker room, chipped tiles and all. The boys’ jerseys are thrown into that corner and form a rapidly growing pile as we hear the sound of soccer cleats hitting the floor and showers being turned on. The image then fades to a view of the female protagonist, a medical student, turning off the light at a university building before going home.

What Do We See is full of touches like this. The camera often seems to capture seemingly quotidian moments, but Koberidze’s painterly eye elevates them to intimate flashes of poetry and delight. Something similar can be said of the way in which the filmmaker, who served as his own editor, juxtaposes his images to create associations that feed into the film’s overall thematic concerns. Here, the disembodied pile of clothes suggests the idea of bodily absence, the shedding of skin and cleansing, which are all important themes being foreshadowed here. They are reinforced in the follow-up shot of the female protagonist, who, through the simple action of turning off the light, suggests the idea of transition, difficulty and darkness ahead but also the promise of, a bit further out, a sunny new day.

At its most elementary level, Koberidze has made an epic-feeling romance with a tiny carbon footprint. The film is set over the summer season in Kutaisi, west of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, an ancient provincial town that’ll become obsessed with soccer as the World Cup unfurls over the summer. The addition of just a few lo-fi supernatural touches allow for small details from everyday lives to shine as brightly as the well-polished armor of a fairy-tale prince. And a necessary dose of cinema and the magic it can bestow comes through the parallel adventures of two middle-aged filmmakers — played, in a perfect meta touch, by the director’s parents — who are looking for couples for a new project.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky starts with the unexpected encounter of the 20-somethings Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) and Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze), who meet by chance when they literally bump into each other on the street and one of them drops a notebook. During their meet-cute, the camera initially doesn’t show their faces but just a close-up of their feet — both an ironic wink to the film’s title as well as a first suggestion that maybe their physical appearance isn’t the most important thing about them.

After a second chance meeting at a crossroads, this time shown in an extremely wide shot in which they look like tiny ants, they decide to meet the next day for a date at a specific café near a bridge. But the morning of their meeting, they both wake up and a spell seems to have altered the appearance of both (Giorgi Bochorishvili and Ani Karseladze now take over the lead roles), so the likelihood that they’ll recognize each other at their café rendezvous has suddenly vertiginously dropped.

The rest of the film observes how they navigate their new reality while they wonder what might have happened to the other person (more so than to themselves — love makes them pleasingly blind to their own shortcomings or transformations in this tale). Will they still find each other or will they slowly let go and consider the wonderful, wider world around them again? Will they, perhaps, contemplate finding someone new … like, for each of them, that cute unknown who seems to have also found a summer job near that ill-fated bridge?

Shooting partially on gloriously saturated 16mm stock, Koberidze and his Iranian cinematographer, Faraz Fesharaki, find examples of the humor and hangdog charm of life in Kutaisi as well as seemingly endless evidence of the casual sensuality of youth and summer. The images are reminiscent of the relaxed everyday beauty of Éric Rohmer films, though the jocular voiceover narration calls to mind the relationship dramas of the French New Wave that were mostly in black-and-white.

This doesn’t mean that Koberidze hasn’t made a very Georgian feature. If anything, the movie, which runs 150 minutes but doesn’t feel a minute too long, is so specifically local that as a viewer sense you could walk around the Kutaisi streets and across its bridges to get to that one place where the neighborhood kids play soccer, or where the adults go to watch a soccer game on TV, without ever losing your bearings.

The promise of a shared khachapuri, the culinary marvel that is Georgian cheese bread, marks what is perhaps the film’s most pivotal instant. Though, as is Koberidze’s wont, the moment feels both momentous and nonchalantly downplayed, as if to remind viewers that if you know what to look for, beauty and meaning can be found at any time and anywhere, even in a pile of dirty soccer jerseys in the corner of a locker room.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: DFFB, New Matter Films, Sakdoc Film, RBB
Cast: Giorgi Bochorishvili, Ani Karseladze, Giorgi Ambroladze, Vakhtang Panchulidze, Oliko Barbakadze
Writer-Director: Alexandre Koberidze
Producer: Mariam Shatberashvili
Director of photography: Faraz Fesharaki
Production designer: Maka Jebirashvili
Costume designer: Nino Zautashvili
Editor: Alexandre Koberidze
Music: Giorgi Koberidze
Sales: Cercamon

In Georgian
150 minutes