Film Review: The Sky Turns

A documentary about the demise of the filmmaker's village in Spain, The Sky Turns is poorly conceived but pleasing to look at.

Mercedes Álvarez’s 2005 documentary about Aldealseñor, the town in Spain where she was born, is so beautifully rendered that there is an urge to attribute a rare singularity to her vision. Those who would be hard-pressed to explain the habits of the herd animals they eat and whose skins they wear might glimpse in the ranching life of Álvarez’s village a quaintness they occasionally yearn for. Even lengthy conversations among the few remaining inhabitants, that would send most of us into paroxysms had these been our own elderly relatives, appear extraordinary at first for their bizarre disconnectedness to modern life. Actually, The Sky Turns is a disparate collection of half-formed ideas about aging and the evanescent quality of everything.

During the course of the film, one villager dies, and Aldealseñor gets a hotel. Ruminations by the townsfolk, sometimes tinged with humor, about these and other matters take place in graveyards, sheep pens and inside the roughhewn stone buildings the villagers call home. None of them is particularly profound, and Álvarez’s penchant for long takes makes nearly all unbearably dull. She’s both a fly on the wall and a narrator, interspersing her thoughts after a 35-year hiatus from Aldealseñor with scenes of the residents going about their daily chores. Much is made of the fact that the area has dinosaur footprints, that the village has been inhabited since Roman times, and that it is dying. It’s romantic to imagine that any of these things, even taken together, are either unique or earth-shattering. And, left unexplained is why the filmmaker’s family abandoned the town and others stayed.

At some point during the documentary, Álvarez says that she knows “one person who could walk with me to the origin of the story.” That sentiment, which refers to Pello Azketa, a painter who is losing his sight, is the most telling in the whole of her narration because it speaks to her lack of clarity. One wonders if Álvarez means to anoint Azketa as her guide to all things at their vanishing point, and also whether she is implying that his blindness will lead her to the introspection she desires. The latter seems exploitative, given her own detachment from her subject matter. Or is it that the pictures the mind must form in the blind for the retention of memories were played out by Álvarez in the making of the documentary—an artistic exercise to bring her closer to Azketa? Azketa is mute on the subject. He speaks only to another villager.

Álvarez never resolves this confusion of purpose, either in the narration or in the rest of the documentary. By the end of the film, Azketa completes a striking painting of a barren landscape outside the town. It’s more evocative than the meandering, two-hour long visit we have taken with Álvarez. Oddly devoid of emotion, The Sky Turns is exactly what the title describes, a kind of travelogue of this austere place to which the filmmaker feels little or no connection. In fact, the documentary is so absent of emotion that it is easy for audiences to fill the vacuum by projecting onto Álvarez their own regret for leaving home, or their sentimental notions of some pastoral paradise retained for the enjoyment of those who know nothing of the rigors of that existence—even after watching The Sky Turns.