• Reviewed at the 2021 Berlinale.

In his debut feature Let the Summer Never Come Again (2017), the Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze used the scaffolding of romance to take viewers on a visually enthralling odyssey through Georgian cityscapes. He does it again in his new film, What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, which takes place in the vibrant town of Kuitasi.

On the eve of a World Cup, a timid young pharmacist, Lisa (played alternatively by Irina Chelidze and Ani Karseladze), and an equally shy league-soccer player, Giorgi (Giorgi Amroladze and Giorgi Bochorishvili), fall in love, after two fortuitous encounters. But when Lisa gets bewitched by the ‘evil eye’, her looks entirely altered by the next morning – with the same fate befallen her lover – the two miss each other on their first date. Both also lose their talents, Lisa for medicine, Giorgi for soccer, so that she winds up working at an ice-cream parlour; he finds a similarly lacklustre job.

It’s astounding how much fun Koberidze has with such a dire scenario. In the voiceover’s ironic narration, absurdist facts are told matter-of-factly: for example, how the curse on Lisa is revealed to her by a weed, a street security camera and a rain gutter.

Koberidze astutely keeps the couple’s misfortunes in a minor key, turning tragedy into the stuff of absurdist fables: Kafka and Hrabal but also Orhan Pamuk (of My Name Is Red) certainly come to mind. As with Kafka’s Samsa, while the lovers wallow, the world goes on obliviously. But it’s the blitheness that draws Koberidze’s attention: trees still shimmer, the river runs with a brisk tempo, lovers smooch in parks, and children play soccer and paint their backs with yellow Messi signs, eagerly awaiting the Cup.

Koberidze’s debut film was made by filtering many hours of low-resolution footage, captured on a phone camera. He applies a somewhat similar method again here, notwithstanding the more luminous high-resolution cinematography.

The scripted scenes still mix with quietly astonishing moments, which capture the town’s uniqueness and convey a sense of wonder. Some of them are humorous, such as a purportedly missed encounter between two dogs that ‘agreed’ to watch a soccer match together. Others are visual interludes, or refrains, such as a soccer-ball bobbing down the stream, a little girl muscling through a violin piece, or the dancing of light and wind against gauzy curtains.

To say that Koberidze aspires to be a poet of the cinema might sound cloying, but he certainly thinks in variations, rhythms and echoes, rather than dramatic arches or characters (these are sometimes afterthoughts).

Which doesn’t mean that Koberidze shies from drama. On the contrary, in one elaborate thread, the two lovers are asked to act in a movie, as a couple. When they’re invited to an informal viewing, Koberidze stages an unabashed deus ex machina finale: the lovers’ true identities are revealed on the rushes. In a Vertovian twist, the camera-machine has seen through their souls, where a mere eye can’t reach.

Further reading

Beginning weighs subjugation and subservience in a Georgian religious sect

Dea Kulumbegashvili’s compelling first feature focusses elliptically on Yana, a mother and wife in a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose sacrifices have brought no solace.

By Pamela Hutchinson

Beginning weighs subjugation and subservience in a Georgian religious sect

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.