'The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Not Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers': NYFF Review

The Sky Trembles Still - H 2015
Courtesy of New York Film Festival
This visually stunning but bafflingly oblique drama is an endurance test.

Ben Rivers' experimental feature partly uses a classic Paul Bowles short story for inspiration.

Even the most adventurous art house moviegoers will find their patience tested by the latest experimental effort from British artist/filmmaker Ben Rivers (A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness). From its deliberately off-putting title to its fractured narrative (not that there's much of one) to its languorous, art installation vibe, The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers redefines pretension. The film was recently shown in the Projections section of the New York Film Festival, but its theatrical prospects beyond museums look non-existent.

Borrowing its title from from A Distant Episode, a 1947 short story by American expat writer Paul Bowles, the film is divided into two sections. The first concerns avant-garde director Oliver Laxe (You Are All Captains) shooting his latest opus in Morocco's Sahara desert with a local cast and crew. The second, a loose adaptation of the Bowles story, depicts Laxe's fictional fate after he walks off the set of his own movie and is captured and brutally treated by a gang of nomads.

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"Can we get rid of whoever is not acting?" Laxe asks early on while struggling to direct his project, and it's a question that may well be echoed by befuddled viewers. While Rivers' film boasts gorgeous visuals of its stark locations and a highly atmospheric sound design, the sluggish pacing and uninteresting action serve as an endurance test. Even the more lurid elements — Laxe supposedly having his tongue ripped out; being clad in a suit of metal can lids like a demented Tin Man; and being forced to dance for his tormentors' pleasure — fail to make much dramatic impact.

There are clearly many themes being bandied about here, from the relationship between fact and fiction to cultural alienation to the folly of attempting to tame chaos into order. But for all its provocative explorations, The Sky Trembles never really gets anywhere.

Production: Artangel

Cast: Oliver Laxe, Shakib Ben Omar, Ali Boumzgour

Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Ben Rivers

Producer: Jacqui Davies

Executive directors: Michael Morris, Cressida Hubbard, Lilzzie Francke

Editors: Ben Rivers, Benjamin Mirguet

Costume designer: Julie Verges

Not rated, 98 min.