08 February 2009

El cielo gira
El cielo gira DVD cover
directed by Mercedes Álvarez
written by Mercedes Álvarez and Arturo Redin
2004 / Spain / color / 106 minutes
Spanish with optional English / French subtitles
DVD from Sherlock Home Video (Spain – region 2, PAL)
Mercedes Alvarez
Director Mercedes Álvarez was the last child born in the tiny village of Aldealseñor in northern Spain – she left there with her parents in the late 1960s, when she was only three years old. As is the case with countless, similarly isolated hamlets, which for various reasons have watched the outside world pass them by, Aldealseñor is slowly, inexorably being depopulated. At the time of the filming of El cielo gira (The sky turns), there were only 14 inhabitants remaining – and with the film depicting the passage of several months in the village, it was almost inevitable that this number be reduced by the passing of one of its citizens. Despite this, Álvarez has not created a morbid, maudlin documentary about the death of a hamlet – this is a gently beautiful film, thoroughly imbued with respect for not only the villagers themselves, but for Aldealseñor itself, the landscape and the history that has shaped it.
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Álvarez contributes narration here and there, but for the most part allows the people still living in the area to speak for themselves, oftentimes in the form of natural, un-coached conversations amongst themselves. Unfolding over the course of a year, the film is presented in parts corresponding to the seasons of the year – day-to-day activities are shown, filled with silent contemplations, views of the landscape and heartfelt, honest reflections on both the nature of the villagers own lives as well as their place in the world and the events that are unfolding around the globe. The photography is nothing short of stunning – Álvarez utilizes a skill in capturing the constant interplay between light and shadow that is simply amazing. I found myself, at several points, having to go back to read subtitles that I had missed while concentrating on the visuals.
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The director says that her inspiration for making the trip back to her birthplace was cemented by viewing a painting by the artist Pello Azketa, who is also from the area. The particular work depicts two boys at the edge of a reservoir, peering into the water as if looking for something that is about to appear, or has disappeared – an apt metaphor for the process that will eventually empty the village. She determined to go there and create a film that would preserve for posterity the personalities of the people who lived there, their way of life, and their place in history. Most of the villagers are elderly – there are a couple who work as shepherds, and they all have activities which keep them as busy as they feel they need to be, such as gardening. They are shown gathering under a tree on the village square, maintaining the church graveyard, tending their sheep, walking through the countryside together, sitting beside a gently warming hearth at night – nothing comes across as staged, which was most likely accomplished because the director had once lived among them. An outsider, no matter how well-intentioned, would probably have had a hard time gaining their trust.
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A couple of the more poignant scenes in the film involve Pello Azketa returning to Aldealseñor – the artist is suffering from an optical disorder that is slowly robbing him of his sight, just as the changes in the village are robbing it of its residents, but his memories of the place are so vivid that he knows where things are as well as the shapes they have held for centuries – the door to the church, the curve of the hills and the general lay of the land.
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Even with discussions of the inevitability of death, as well as changes in the village which they might not approve (such as the remodeling of an 800-year-old Moorish castle into a 5-star hotel), the inhabitants maintain an attitude of gentle acceptance that seems to be completely devoid of resentment or bitterness. They are comfortable with their place in the scheme of things, satisfied with the lives they have lived, and see no point in wishing things had been otherwise. Even a discussion about the difficulties of maintaining a steady supply of staples (bread and other items are delivered from outside once or twice a week) doesn’t generate into a mood of dark dissatisfaction – things are what they are, and their lot is to deal with life as it is handed to them.
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The village itself is surrounded by countryside that is absolutely beautiful – rolling hills dotted with oak and elm trees – that, through the course of the passing seasons, reveals countless panoramas that will take the viewers’ breath away. Early in the film, an elderly woman points out the tracks of dinosaurs in the stone (there are also several life-size models in the area) and comments on how many millions of years ago they lived; a tour guide leads a group through Iberceltic ruins from Roman times, narrating the staunch defense the ancient locals mounted against the invading armies; modern technology is scarce (a television is shown in one scene, delivering news of the impending US invasion of Iraq) for the most part, making a significant incursion in the form of a windmill farm built to generate electricity. The ancient dominates, but modernity will not be deterred – the locals consider it to be as natural a process of the passing of time as birth and death.
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I suppose El cielo gira has a bit of an elegiac mood to it – but it is never really mournful. Without coming across as an outsider trying to forcefully preserve a way of life that is slowly disappearing, Álvarez literally caresses her subject – with her sparse but to-the-point narration allowing the actual voices and feelings of the people to shine through, she has created a document of rare beauty that should speak to the heart and soul of every viewer. It’s an elegy of sorts, but one that will, I believe, elicit more gentle smiles than tears.

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