How often does the cosmos grant us love at first sight? What if you were to be given such an exceptional gift, derived from an impossible encounter in the middle of the street, only for it to be teasingly snatched away? You may think it far from likely, but this is precisely what happens to Giorgi (Giorgi Bochorishvili), and Lisa (Ani Karseladze) in “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?”, the enchanting sophomore feature from Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze. This isn’t just an ode to the impossibility of love, the magnetic pull that enwraps us and drags us, unknowingly, towards strangers, but to affection in all of its forms: to friends, to home, to the cobbled city streets, to ice cream and the birds that chirp and dance in the sky.
A book falls to the ground, and feet scurry to collect it. Two strangers collide. With breathless voices, they mutter apologies for their mutual clumsiness. They’re immediately enamored with one another, and, caught by the heady thrill of Cupid’s arrow, they hastily agree to a date at a riverside cafe the following evening. Lost in the bustle is a minor detail: their names. The fairy tale introduced, now, welcomes a hurdle, and as with much of Koberidze’s story, it’s seemingly plucked from the air: the villainous “evil eye,” embodied for one of the pair, Lisa, as a flashing traffic light, curses them to awaken with different faces. Their talents, too, fade overnight: Giorgi, a professional footballer, rises with two left feet, while the scientific scrawlings of Lisa, a doctor, are now, to her, alphabetti spaghetti.
They both turn up to the date, nonetheless, and sit at separate tables. As the night grows darker, they wait for one another to arrive, both always there. Giorgi drinks four beers, the first time he has drunk so much since he was eighteen. One can certainly forgive him such an indulgence, given the state of affairs. They leave, downtrodden, but the magnetism is strong: both are dragged, not least by convenient circumstance, back to the cafe, taking up handy jobs for its owner, and so fall back into one another’s spheres. They dance around each other as strangers, unaware of the forces at play. Yet a tension undergirds it all, a distant familiarity, like unknowing siblings, or old lovers altered by the erosion of time.
Particularly amid the current global predicament attention spans have been short, so you’ll forgive anyone for feeling that a two-and-a-half-hour runtime is a daunting prospect (particularly when one has to then, fleetingly, write on it) – but seldom will you find a feature so economical with its runtime. One finds oneself hard-pressed to find a wasted frame here. Cinematographer Faraz Fesheraki’s compositions are gorgeous from shot-to-shot, wasting no time on coverage (as one shouldn’t if you’re asking for more than ninety minutes of someone’s time). Fesheraki exhibits so much formal pizazz, his palette a broad array of camera movements, shots and manual zooms, complimenting the fable’s playfulness.
The film is tremendously articulate, not least in its use of vibrant color, from the deep greens of foliage that often dresses the picturesque Georgian city, Kutaisi, where the film is set, to the bold colors that pop from Nino Zautashvili’s costumes, drawing the eye, keeping us fed with chic stimuli (greatly curated, again, for such a long runtime, as attention starts to wane, and we search for hooks). This is a celebration of the cosmic, eternal power of love, after all, the thing that unites us most of all, that deep empathy that only human beings can hold. It needs, you feel, the vibrancy of a new summer’s day, as it boasts in abundance. Aside from the central relationship, Fesheraki’s camera darts in-and-out of the minutiae of Kutaisi, capturing life in all of its forms: here, love is football, the cheer of a crowd when Argentina scores a winning goal in the World Cup final (there’s romantic fiction), boys painting “Messi” on their backs. A magical moment comes at halftime: a group of street kids, shot in slow motion, dribble a ball around one another like pros, before they shoot it into the sky, where it sits like the sun. They stare, awestruck.
It’s all fundamentally unbelievable, and knowingly so. This is, too, about the authorship of love, and how we construct the memory of how love was, itself, constructed: the stories we tell ourselves to keep the heart beating, even as desire wanes. The double-layer is incredibly cheeky, Koberidze, the author of this narrative, injecting his own passions, and making a reality of desired fictions – not least, yes, Argentina winning a contemporary World Cup with Messi at the helm. So often we ask for stories to deviate from the expected script, to give us something organic and real, and that Koberidze’s film playfully rejects this, building his own compelling fable from the putty of love, is refreshing. No doubt if we could go back and change our own unhappy endings we would do so. “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” is, simply, proactive. [A-]