Director: José Luis Torres Leiva
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most people go to the movies to relax, a term that means different things to different people. Some like a comedy that can induce the laughter needed get those happy-making endorphins going. Others like films of human emotion that can serve as a catharsis for them. Still others don’t like to relax at all—they’d rather be juiced on the latest actioner, thriller, or scifi/fantasy. In all these cases, the moviegoer may experience a feeling of well-being, but I’d argue that very few of these films are actually relaxing.
The Sky, the Earth and the Rain is that extremely rare film that truly turns down the noise of the world, creating a meditative state that allows one’s body and being to relax totally and be in the moment. It’s likely to leave many people feeling fidgety, waiting for something to “happen.” In fact, a lot does happen in this film, but its story is told with an economy of exquisitely designed visual compositions that unmistakably communicate developments in the plot and extremely spare dialogue that can’t amount to much more than 25 lines in the entire film. This Chilean film is the epitome of show, don’t tell.
The movie’s central character—whose name we don’t learn until the film is nearly three-quarters finished—is Ana (Julieta Figueroa), a woman in her late 20s whose captivating face often looks much younger than her years. Her days are spent taking long walks; gazing out at the sea; tending to her paralyzed and dying mother; spending time with her friends, a 30ish Verónica (Angélica Riquelme) and depressive Marta (Mariana Muñoz); and riding a ferry that takes her from her island home to the mainland of Chile, where she works as a cashier in a grocery store. One day, the store owner receives a complaint from a customer that Ana has shortchanged him; at the end of the day, the money in the till is short. Ana is sacked. Verónica arranges for her to work as a housekeeper for Toro (Pablo Krögh), a friend of hers.
Every strand in Ana’s life will move forward in what can be considered plot developments. Yet, plot is almost beside the point. This stunning film, shot by Into Briones using handheld, steadicam, and fixed camera techniques, and directed with utter sensitivity and patience by Torres Leiva (for which he was rewarded with the FIPRESCI Prize at the Rotterdam International Film Festival), creates such a peaceful, rhythmic world that it envelopes the viewer.
The opening scene takes place in a misty wood where a girl is playing with a magnificent chocolate German Shephard named Eka. The girl, whose identity we won’t learn until about the time we learn Ana’s name, calls to the dog as she moves through the woods and off camera. The dog strays in another direction, toward the cameraman. For some reason, this random move by Eka affected me with its freedom—not something I’m used to seeing in movie dogs.
Ana’s island is a cold, damp place, and again the detail of the islanders walking around in knee-high rubber boots and layers of clothes topped with warm coats when outside and thick, wool socks when inside conveyed a very visceral feeling for me of the land and its atmosphere. Brione manages to create dimensionality on the screen by finding and shooting layers at a slightly skewed angle—for example, trees, mist, more trees, and a figure in the background. He plays with focus, blurring the foreground focal point in a straight-on shot while sharpening the background, and vice versa. There are many haiku-like shots—with matching soundscapes—of trees, fields, ocean waves, weathered buildings, a slow-moving ferry docking, that aren’t in any hurry to matter except as what they are. Toro hunts with Eka at his side, and Ana watches him with quiet adoration. Yet later, when a group of city slickers out for a day of pheasant shooting fire into the air, the sound actually causes Ana and the audience to jump, so deep in our quiet moments are we.
Plot turns occur as they might in real life. Ana walks up the dirt path to Toro’s home one morning and finds Verónica walking toward her. A worried look comes across Ana’s face. Later she asks Verónica, “How long have you known Toro?” Verónica responds, “Why?” That’s all we need to know to surmise that Verónica is sleeping with Toro, and Ana is jealous. In another scene, Ana is returning from the mainland on the ferry; we spy Verónica next to a taxi with the housekeeper who cares for Ana’s mother while she’s at work. Again, we know instantly that Ana’s mother has died.
Some plotlines are left open. Marta has once been found crying inconsolably and later, tried to wade into the ocean, resisting Ana and Verónica as they pull her back. In the most starkly evocative image of the film, Marta stands next to a solitary tree with a limb just perfect for hanging. We view them in long shot, then Marta collapses. The camera moves in to an extreme close-up of her eyes, and that’s the moment we realize Marta is epileptic, may be brain-damaged from the seizures, and certainly hates living with the condition. Her actions, formerly mysterious, suddenly make sense. She runs off into the woods one day, and that’s as far as her story goes.
This film’s trailer was cut in a more frenetic style that I found a bit deceptive about the film’s atmosphere. Instead, the film’s slow-paced seductiveness is, for me, like watching a Monet painting and expressive Old World faces come to life. I highly recommend this treasure of a film.