‘What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?’ Review: But I Digress

“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” It’s a good title and better question and, much like the movie attached to it, the answer easily spirals off in different directions. We look at the sky itself, of course, the dark and light clouds. We look at rainbows and lightning, smog and smoke, tall trees and taller buildings, soaring birds and buzzing insects, though in practice we don’t often truly look at the world, which means we don’t see it or its everyday wonders, terrors and adventures — which is to this movie’s point.

Pleasing, exasperating, poignant and coy, “What Do We See” is a loose, exceedingly leisurely meander through a series of momentous and banal moments that take place during an amble through the Georgian city of Kutaisi. It’s a romantic tale of two bewitched people, though the filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze is far more interested in the small dramas continually unfolding in the perfectly ordinary world around them — sometimes perfect in its very ordinariness. He’s interested in children playing in the park, dogs jauntily sauntering in the streets, a cafe owner hustling for better business — all the stuff that most movies use as mortar to hold the narrative blocks together.

Soon after “What Do We See” begins, it seems to be settling into storytelling gear with an unusually staged and framed encounter. The meeting starts with a tiny bird, a sparrow perhaps, flying into an otherwise empty shot of a sidewalk. The bird picks up a twig and just as it flies out of the shot, two strangers, Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze), enter the frame from opposite directions, accidentally bumping into each other. She drops her book, he picks it up. They exchange apologies and continue walking, though in the wrong direction. They turn around and bump up again. The book drops, they go in the wrong direction, course correct and exit to go about their day.

Lisa is wearing red pants and Mary Jane flats without socks; he’s wearing brown pants and lace-up shoes with socks. You know this because throughout this amusingly, precisely choreographed encounter, the camera remains fixed on the lower part of their bodies, cutting off just above their knees. You want to look up but can’t, and only see their faces when they’ve gone off in their separate lives, where she works as a pharmacist and he seems to be a professional soccer player. Later that night, they run into each other again, though it’s hard to tell because the camera is now at a great distance. This time, they make a date to meet at a cafe, a promise they involuntarily don’t keep.

That’s the story though this scarcely describes the movie, which soon folds in a dollop of magical realism that finds the characters transformed into two different-looking people and now embodied by other actors, with Lisa 2 played by Ani Karseladze and Giorgi 2 by Giorgi Bochorishvili. This metamorphosis puts a kibosh on their date (they can’t recognize each other) and creates other problems because neither can remember how to do their jobs. Yet as his characters grapple with their new identities, Koberidze (who also narrates) keeps spinning off here and there to look at, and talk about, well, everything else, if mostly romping children, wandering dogs and lots and lots of soccer.

The cumulative charms of these narrative byways fade as Koberidze’s meandering extends to two and a half hours, though the end section is glorious and there’s much to appreciate about a movie that reminds you that at times the best parts of a shaggy-dog story are the ostensibly pointless ones.

“What Do We See” is a fairly obvious labyrinth (you won’t get lost), but in demanding so much of your time it asks you to consider what we see when we watch the sky — or a film. Most movies seize your attention with noise and nonsense but soon fade. By contrast, though I muttered about Koberidze’s pokiness while watching, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie afterward. I railed against it (in my head) and kept railing and, after a while, realized, well, I really did like it, after all.

What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?
Not rated. In Georgian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. In theaters.

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