“Attention!” bawls an onscreen title, or rather its subtitle, given that the original is written in Georgia’s lovely curly alphabet. “Dear Audience, please close your eyes at the first signal.” Alexandre Koberidze, writer-director-narrator of the marvellous, mischievous “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” probably doesn’t expect anyone to obey as he effects his story’s central switcheroo, like a kid not great at magic asking mom to look away from the handkerchiefs he’s stuffing up his sleeve. But that’s not the point.
Instead, the command, along with other self-conscious flourishes like the direct-address voiceover, the creaky, obviously manual zooms and the sudden, interruptive digressions about global catastrophe and far-off forest fires, reminds us of ourselves in relation to the film, that we are active participants in the creation of this (or any) work of cinema. And given how much this movie loves the movies, as well as dogs, music, children, soccer, ice cream, the ancient Georgian town of Kutaisi, and the very process of falling in love, there is something immensely hopeful and moving about being thus invited to collude.
Lisa (Oliko Barbakadze) is a pharmacist. Giorgi (Giorgi Ambroladze) is a footballer. They meet cute, or rather their feet do, as their first encounter is framed from the knees down; sometimes DP Faraz Fesharaki’s cinematography has the naiveté of an early-cinema silent and even when he shoots in digital, the soft-grained sensuality of the 16mm sections has the halo effect of making all the images feel warm to the touch. Later, Lisa and Giorgi’s paths cross again — this time they’re faraway specks on a street at night — and they set up a date for the following day. But as the rueful narrator tells us, they’ve fallen under the curse of the Evil Eye, and are both destined to wake up the following morning looking like other people (spoiler alert: this will happen whether you close your eyes or not), and neither will recognize the other when they go to keep their assignation.
Lisa (now Ani Karseladze) has forgotten all her medical knowledge, so gets a job instead at the new cafe by the bridge where the ill-starred lovers had arranged to meet. Giorgi (now Giorgi Bochorishvili) is unrecognisable to his teammates and anyway, he can no longer kick a ball to save his life. He gravitates toward the cafe too, but is given a job by its affable owner (Vakhtang Panchulidze) on the nearby bridge, manning a crude test-your-strength gizmo that is really a marketing ploy to get people to visit the cafe. Meanwhile, the soccer world cup is ramping up, though the cafe’s big screen is poorly placed, and some local filmmakers, played by Koberidze’s parents, are looking for couples to cast in their new film project.
Lisa and Giorgi, not realizing the lovers for whom they pine are right there before them, oh-so-gradually draw closer to one another. But Koberidze’s film spirals the other way, using its luxuriant two-and-a-half-hour runtime to circle wider and wider, gathering more of the town and its crooked metaphysics into its genial, gently magical embrace. The history of the town’s love of football is traced, over montages of men and kids with glazed, soccer-drugged eyes hypnotized by the screen above a doner kebab stall. There’s a detour to a ludicrously bucolic bakery whose employees decorate elaborate cakes on stone tables on the overgrown lawn. There’s a visit to a music college, every room a new cacophony. The geography of the town is laid out with idiosyncratic precision, which will doubtless prove handy when you make the visit you’re inevitably planning by the end of the film.
But this is not a tourist board vision; the views can be mundane as well as majestic, and if they sometimes soar against Schubert or Debussy, just as often they trundle to the rag-and-bone rhythms of the folksier stretches of Giorgi Koberidze’s astonishingly varied score. The use of music can be literal: Harp glissandos denote romance, plaintive horns play over missed connections. But who cares, when at half-time, that impulse gives us transcendence: Gianna Nannini’s superlatively cheesy 1990 World Cup anthem “Notti Magiche,” rocking through its 4-minute entirety while neighborhood kids play football in slow motion.
There’s a spirit that invigorates all things there, visible and otherwise, animate and otherwise. Drainpipes and CCTV cameras and wine glasses are alive, the way a violin is alive with all the unplayed notes it still contains. And where there’s life, there’s dignity. Even before he names the street dogs that trot across every scene, and clues us in to their inter-canine dramas, Koberidze politely gives them time to clear the frame. They, like all the people, get their moment. If the result is sometimes Abbas Kiarostami and sometimes Charlie Chaplin, it’s also “People on Sunday,” where even the most incidental character gets to be the momentary hero of their own portrait. Or of their own little mystery, as with a black cat, tiny on a nighttime street who simply, as you watch him, disappears.
Is there an opposite to the Evil Eye? If so, that’s the gaze in “What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?” It’s just as uncanny, but primed toward romance and an unabashedly sentimental spirituality, calmly accepting and indulgent of invisible, supernatural forces, of those strange ancient magics that you don’t believe in anymore. Except sometimes, when you witness a particularly miraculous, physics-defying Messi strike. Or when a stranger’s dog puts its head on your knee and looks up. Or when you drop your book and someone picks it up, and you fall in love.