Berlinale 2021 Review: Fate Comes Into Focus in Alexandre Koberidze’s Wondrous “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky”

You start hearing the voice of an omniscient narrator (Alexandre Koberidze, the film’s director) in “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky” only after Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) and Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) meet, thrust into the position of speaking for both when it’s impossible for them to talk to one another due to an ancient curse. It’s too bad when the pair seemed destined to be together, making the mistake of walking in the wrong direction twice leading separate collisions and reuniting later that night in the same spot, expecting destiny to keep leading them into each other’s arms, though as the narrator informs this is not to be with the forces conspiring against them, citing quite specifically the rain gutters, the surveillance camera and the wind that were all there for this final encounter, with every element of the environment contributing to the outcome of the moment.

The seemingly doomed romance leads audiences into this transfixing Georgian meditation on fate and happenstance, with Lisa and Giorgi experiencing all the downside of infatuation as they’re drained of their ability to concentrate on anything else but their lost love without any of the upside, cosmically prevented from ever connecting even when they’re less than a few hundred feet from each other at all times. But Koberidze uses the folkloric premise to let the story get away from him in wonderful ways, in spite of acting as the voice of God.

While the writer/director may have the ability to control everything that eventually ends up on screen, there’s an angst that begins to creep into his narration and after drawing attention to how he can manipulate the experience — everything from asking viewers to shut their eyes to awaken as the characters do to zooming in on seemingly uninteresting parts of the frame — Koberidze suggests he has no more power over the world he’s created than the one he lives in every day, yielding the kind of epiphany and delight that never feels manufactured in spite of how much he makes one conscious that it is. Being in Kutaisi, one of the world’s most ancient cities, certainly brings a serenity of its own, but the skill it takes to get an audience to surrender themselves so completely to this is undeniable.

“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky” cleverly invokes Girogi’s passion for soccer as a running theme throughout — while the character may lose his will to play, he still finds himself inside a game where the ball can bounce in an unexpected direction no matter what command he has over its aim. (Koberidze takes things a step further when the checkered ball is seen adrift in a river, wryly surpassing the plastic bag dancing in the wind in “American Beauty” as a potent existential metaphor.) Although the filmmaker will return to the unrequited lovers throughout, it moves from the children that play around town to the older cafe owner (Vakhtang Panchulidze) who depends upon the World Cup to bring in customers, a series of passes that make far more sense once they result in an end goal, and what gives “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky” such kick is accepting that everyone on the field is a part of the action, extending that sensation to an audience that is so warmly invited to be part of the film.

“What Do We See When We Look at the Sky” will premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.