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NYFF Review: The City Takes Pride of Place in “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 9th, 2021

Film poster: “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Alexandre Koberidze, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Nominally a strange, elliptical modern-day fairy tale, Alexandre Koberidze’s second feature, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is almost more documentary than fiction, allowing the city in which it is filmed—Kutaisi, in the Republic of Georgia—to take front and center as the principal character. Like the nonfiction cinematic symphonies of yore, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, the movie explores the quotidian details that make its central location both ordinary and extraordinary. Life, however familiar, is a wild journey. Prepare for adventure.

Or misadventure, as the case may be. When Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) bump into each other (quite literally) and thereafter make a date, little do they know what fate will bring. Unwittingly conjuring a curse, they soon find themselves physically transformed, unrecognizable even to themselves, played, for the rest of the film, by actors Ani Karseladze (Lisa) and Giorgi Bochorishvili (Giorgi). Worse, they cannot remember their education and training, and so must abandon their previous careers, hers as a pharmacist, his as a professional soccer player. As they drift through the void, they each gravitate towards the same riverside café, where they slowly renew acquaintance without realizing the identity of the other. Will they ever figure it out, or return to their former selves?

Ani Karseladze in WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK at the SKY? ©MUBI

While this seems like it should be the primary dramatic question, it instead takes a back seat to an exploration of local customs and events. We certainly spend most of our time with the hapless duo, but they are but a vehicle to travel through Kutaisi, the movie acting as a love poem to the city. Whether the camera roams the streets, courtyards, riverbanks or surrounding hillsides, Koberidze (Let the Summer Never Come Again) takes the time to languorously linger on the minutiae of everyday experience.

These include televised soccer matches, watched communally (by people and dogs, alike) in outdoor spaces, the baking (and sampling) of cakes, contests of strength and athletic prowess, romancing of couples, and the making of a movie within the movie. This last one will finally bring us, in a roundabout manner, towards our conclusion, though at 150 minutes, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is in no rush to end. By its conclusion, though the mystery of what happened, and why, remains, one thing is abundantly clear: humanity (along with a few canines) is endlessly fascinating.

Giorgi Bochorishvili in WHAT DO WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK at the SKY? ©MUBI

“What use is a subject like this?” asks our unseen narrator, who then says that there is a point to it all, after all … This indirect form of storytelling can be simultaneously lovely and tiresome, its whimsy not always on point. And yet there is magic in the air and on the screen, leading us towards thoughts of what nightmares and daydreams might come our own way. If they be half as beautiful as Koberidze’s images, then bring them on.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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