The Sky Turns

Reviewer: Philip M Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2

In The Sky Turns, filmmaker Mercedes Álvarez returns to her birthplace: the small Castilian village of Aldealseñor. Nearly four decades earlier, Álvarez became the last child to be born in Aldealseñor and, upon her return, she discovers a place out of time in both senses of the phrase – the way of life the village has clung to since prehistory remains an anachronism and the village inhabitants are finally yielding to the death knell of modernity.

The film maps a year in the life of Aldealseñor, with Álvarez taking a bit of a backseat, except to occasionally narrate the proceeding with ponderous philosophical observations reminiscent (but not quite to the poetic level) of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. At times the film plays almost like a parody of rustic life document. Dentally challenged oldsters sit around yammering about when the next visit from the fishmonger will be, a pair of sardonic gravediggers right out of a Beckett play relate a story about a disinterred head, and the dusty streets are clogged with idle shepherds and their flocks.

The first forty minutes or so meander, establishing (and reestablishing) the quotidian rhythms of Aldealseñor. The village has been the site of plenty of historical events – dinosaur bones are unearthed right next to stone walls built by Romans and the roots of 500-year-old elm trees conceal the skulls of soldiers from the Celtiberian wars. A giant palace dating back to Moorish rule is being converted into a luxury palace by an enterprising firm from a distant city. It’s a haunted landscape and Álvarez’s camera does a fantastic job capturing the details – from the dilapidated buildings and craggy faces of the villagers to the encroachment of a very modern wind farm on the village’s outskirts.

Initially, however, there’s a sense that all of this means far more to the filmmaker than it does to us. There are mildly interesting, but ultimately intrusive, asides involving a painter from the village who is slowly going blind, a fact that Álvarez milks for all of its ironic worth. Much of the interaction with the villagers seems a bit stagey and it almost feel like the only direction Álvarez gave her subjects was “be profound.”

The Sky Turns does picks up around the 40-minute mark, with Álvarez’s formal chops becoming more pronounced (particularly during a hypnotic scene detailing the construction of one of the mammoth windmills). Even though her budget limited her to shooting on 4:3 video, Álvarez wrests a great amount of beauty from the normally flat format. Watching the future (in the form of pipe-and-wire infrastructure) catch up with a village that is “still perfecting its interface with the past” becomes more and more wrenching as the film progresses, building to the climactic opening the refurbished palace.

The villagers are content but hand-to-mouth and will never be able to afford a night’s stay in the 42-room, five-star hotel that now looms over their daily lives. The palace is “for the rich,” one of the women remarks. “For the locals, nothing.” The construction couldn’t be better timed to underscore the film’s theme of the old ways yielding to the new. Meanwhile, the village itself is being slowly invaded by youngsters peeling through the town square in their cars, blaring political ads for the region’s Socialist Party candidate, obnoxiously interrupting Mass, bearing candy, balloons, and condoms to give to the nonplussed natives.

The Sky Turns is the type of film people drag out terms like “tone poem” and “magical realism” to describe, a bit on the intentionally enigmatic side but not without moments of genuine profundity. Similar ground was covered in last year’s Nostalgia for the Light and fans of that film will find more of the same meditations here. The film has a quiet resonance that, for better or worse, plays better in memory than during viewing.

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