East of Berlin

The Daily — Mar 3, 2021
Ani Karseladze in Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (2021)

As a child growing up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Alexandre Koberidze wore a jet stone to ward off the evil eye. Eventually, after studying economics and film production, he moved to Germany to study directing at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB), where he made a few short films, all of them landing respectable spots along the festival circuit. His first feature, Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017), premiered at the Berlin Critics’ Week and won the grand prix at FID Marseille. Now Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian and his team of programmers have given Koberidze a more than justifiable vote of confidence by catapulting him straight into this year’s competition with his playful yet also gorgeously elegiac What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?

Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) are both very good at what they do. She works at a pharmacy and studies medicine and he, a dedicated fan of Lionel Messi and Argentina’s national team, plays soccer. One afternoon in Kutaisi—and if it were at all possible to reduce What Do We See to a logline, we could do worse than call it a two-and-a-half-hour love letter to the modest city that served as the capital of Kingdom of Georgia a thousand years ago—Lisa and Giorgi literally bump into each other twice, and perhaps sensing destiny at work, they make a date for the next day. What they don’t sense is the evil eye.

They haven’t exchanged names or numbers. That night, as each of them falls asleep, a title card interrupts: “Attention! Dear audience, please close your eyes.” Koberidze has to know that we have already been so charmed that we will do no such thing. When a signal chimes for us to open our eyes, Lisa and Giorgi each awake appearing as an entirely different woman and man. From here on out, they will be played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili. Neither will know that the other has also been cursed, and both, having been robbed of their special talents (part and parcel of the curse) take menial jobs at the café where they were to have met, never realizing that the object of their desire is *right there.* In the end, a foreshadowed resolution will tie things up, but thankfully, Koberidze is in no hurry to tell his story.

What Do We See is a stream of rewarding diversions flowing like tributaries of the Rioni River that runs through Kutaisi and under its bridges. The narrator wonders out loud why he bothers to tell such a whimsical tale when there’s so much violent wrong in the world. He anticipates your questions about the many obvious plot holes. He takes us to a music school beside the river for a sequence that becomes a delirious marvel of sound design. He pauses to watch along with us as the local children play soccer in slow motion, a reverie of movement, joy, and promise.

He also explains why each of the city’s dogs has its own favorite spot from which to watch the World Cup. “They, like all the people, get their moment,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety. “If the result is sometimes Abbas Kiarostami and sometimes Charlie Chaplin, it’s also People on Sunday, where even the most incidental character gets to be the momentary hero of their own portrait . . . Is there an opposite to the evil eye? If so, that’s the gaze in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? It’s just as uncanny, but primed toward romance and an unabashedly sentimental spirituality, calmly accepting and indulgent of invisible, supernatural forces, of those strange ancient magics that you don’t believe in anymore.”

For a radical shift in theme and tone, we turn to Natural Light, the first fictional feature from Hungarian filmmaker Dénes Nagy. He’s taken the title and a central character but only a sliver of the narrative from Pál Závada’s sprawling novel from 2014. While Závada’s 600-page book spans twenty years, Nagy focuses on just three days in 1943. Hungarian troops are combing through occupied Soviet territories to weed out partisans. Essentially, Natural Light is the story of a war crime as seen from the point of view of the perpetrators, both the willing and the unwilling.

Command of one of these special units falls to a stone-faced farmer, Semetka (Ferenc Szabó, who reminds Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell of a young Max von Sydow), when the leader is killed in an ambush. The troops blame local villagers for the attack, assuming that they’ve tipped off partisan forces. Hungarian reinforcements arrive, led by an old friend of Semetka’s, who sends Semetka on a brief and pointless mission so that the inevitable revenge can be taken in his absence. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor finds it “difficult not to draw a line from Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) through [László Nemes’s] Son of Saul [2015] and [Václav Marhoul’s] The Painted Bird (2019) up to this debut full of similarly ashen-faced characters on the Eastern Front.”

In Variety, Jay Weissberg detects the aesthetic influence of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sharunas Bartas, which is certainly all well and good, but he finds Natural Light lacking in one crucial element. “Technically impeccable and rigorously cleaving to an aesthetic designed to keep the viewer at arm’s length,” he writes, “the film is so intent on privileging the soldier protagonist’s immovable face (when not focusing on the back of his helmet), so determined to keep him frozen and unknowable, that Nagy dispenses with that key ineffable quality: human emotion.”

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