A small town presented in masterstrokes

The Sky Turns (El Cielo Gira)

on January 21, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Director Mercedes Álvarez is keenly aware of the potential to get carried away when returning to her hometown decades after she deserted it. Now stocked with a painter’s eye and a snowshoe hare’s knack for disguise, she lets her film’s Shakespearean threads loom masterfully while its characters’ ancient habits and unadulterated spirit soar. Big questions are tackled in this little documentary, the same ones that have been danced with for centuries. This is a film for a pondering audience. Niche numbers will show up at theatres, compelled to walk away transfixed and undergo a gestational experience shadowing the town’s quirky population over four dramatic seasons. You peer ahead with these farmers-by-day-philosophers-by-night, somehow embracing mortality as modernity storms the castle.

It’s no coincidence that the director framed the first shot on a painting that voyeuristically catches two youths (one squatting, the other standing) from behind looking out into a watery distance as they’re surrounded by boulders; the moment is on canvas and, in a sense, it’s over. And the still-life setup is an M.O. to which the film adheres. Once the moment is caught it ends and you move on. Good or bad. A small northwest Spanish settlement known as Aldealseñor is host to prehistoric fossils and a small population who carry on life as usual. Water in buckets, sheep herded, plowing crops—aside from the advent of electricity for radio signals and television viewing, it’s all quite a slow day-to-day.

The narration sets-up the picture’s chapters. The studio recorded voice feels a tad disjointed given the natural playground of the acrid and tough terrain of that makes-up this mountainous region. An elderly women scales through with a long stick and points out all the dinosaur fossils. In the background is a large statue of a triceratops. This woman, whose livelihood and footprint will go down in the rock is her own sort of living dinosaur, and before long you feel as though the message she speaks is one of the last.

The director returned to this chunk of earth (its inhabitants not breaking much beyond a baker’s dozen) to reclaim its spirit and watch how life has continued in spite of her absence. Perhaps it will not go on once the last of the living departs. The landscape has remained the same: Holm oak trees, black thorns, grass and unimpressed earth withstanding countless lightning storms and unforgiving sunlight. Through the foggy morning, the film opens-up like a dream and the sounds of sheep and birds chirping and tranquility seems to be the norm. A peanut gallery likens that to a Chorus in Sophocles and establishes itself griping about the bread or fruitman’s routes falling-off frequency. Their chatter does the trick for their German shepherd who gets a fine siesta beside them on a bench. Humor is not foreign when two men are digging irrigation ditches in a cemetery. One recalls his uncle’s skull excavated while shoveling dirt recently and in precise detail he describes the hair melting once the sun hit it. So too do the two gravediggers act as copy editors, finding misspellings on headstones and musing that the plum tree sharing the death grounds juicily possess “the taste of death.”

As Autumn falls upon the hamlet the residents stir, and when two women return to the royal palace—now left for not, they talk about their fond memories of the pear and cherry orchards and the majestic atmosphere this ruin once claimed. The establishing shots are just superb while these women are gossiping. Álvarez doesn’t miss a beat and still maintains an unobstructed place in each room they wander into. One particular shot again recognizes the two-person motif; rarely is anyone alone for very long in the film. In one iris bound shot, two women walk and talk about how the lords back in the day “had the whole village to themselves.” Masterful. That era may have changed, although the old folks are equated to lords (scaled down in title and lifestyle) because they lay claim to the land as far as the eye can see. That is until things change.

The filmmakers lucked-out in terms of timing because within short time industry and migrating tourists, as well as political reach, ripped into this hinterland. A shot of what looks like a brachiosaurus is actually a moving Catepillar pipelayer machine constructing a pre-fab windmill while crews stab at belly of rich soil. Aggressive change is thrust upon the town, but still they carry on with their simple lives. An old woman grunts as she tugs on the ropes to sound the cathedral bells and the local men wonder about astronomy and migrating to Mars while they plow their fields to plant lettuce and greens. Folks attend mass sans a priest and even as a speeding car tears through the dirt road to paste-up political flyers, the bird chirps are muffled, the lunar eclipse overshadowed by the news that the abandoned palace is set to be converted into a five-star hotel “for the rich.”

In the balance are world events that pass almost as quietly as the peaceful day. When the Iraq War’s redux became imminent a few folks sat around, looking downward and resigned to the fact that this was history repeating itself; harking dismal memories of Civil War during Franco’s Spain. That night New World theatrics began on an old tube watched by an elderly woman as the announcer boasted the artillery used by the destroyers and the satellite missiles. Far away a battle was being fought, but in this town life and its dwellers soldier on.

As the wind is harnessed, the town’s landmark’s profited on, there is a half-blind painter named Pello Azketa who makes intermittent pit stops to draw and paint the world he remembers and yet can barely see anymore. Younger than the rest of the population he is as hampered by the inability to see as perhaps the others are restricted by travel, or stamina, or old age. Pello relies on the sounds and second-hand details from stalwart shepherds who know the crevices and nooks better than anybody else. As the painter frantically mixes colors and fights the night to finish a piece; you see the rest of the townspeople fighting for every moment too. What’s rendered here is a fleeting life where we’re mere visitors with roots that come and go. The film is testament to this transient existence. As we connect with these unstirred settlers who will live out their days in this village and carry out their trade until it’s not humanly possible there is a pang of sadness that a new generation won’t carry on the traditions. Maybe the film itself is an ode to the hard-hands and crow’s feet that have braved the elements and kept going despite the temptation to surrender to services and subcontract their lives to a metropolis machine. Whatever the case, they surely won’t go quietly. One shepherd stomps, “I was brought up to be with the flock. And it’s with the flock that I will die.”

New Yorker Films
Directors: Mercedes Álvarez
Screenwriter: Arturo Redin
Producer: Jose Maria Lara
Genre: Documentary, English and Spanish-language; subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 115 min.
Release date: April 10 NY

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