“The Sky Turns”

The Sky Turns is a 2003 documentary film by Mercedes Alvarez. The director revisits Aldealseñor in northern Spain, the village of her birth 30 years before, reduced now to 14 elderly residents. Alvarez’s well-crafted film places the village into the grand context of time, history, seasons and cycles. The countryside still reveals the relics of dinosaurs; it was the historic seat of ancient Numancia, where the Celtiberians resisted the Roman invaders until the end; the medieval castle was built by Arabs; technology and poverty left the village virtually abandoned save for the hearty few, including tenacious shepherds, but returns its ugly face in the erection of gigantic windmills to blot the hilltop vistas and speed electricity to the far-away cities.

A painter losing his eyesight is Alvarez’s metaphor for not just the village but for life itself. Each resident has become what the Spanish writer Azorin called the filosofo pequeño, the small, or humble philosopher, reflecting on life with a mix of stoicism and Unamuno’s tragic sense. They never speak loudly, never argue, are never in a hurry. They sun themselves in the plaza, where a 500-year old oak tree died, and itemize who still or no longer delivers food to the village: the bread man, the produce man, the fishmonger. A young couple drives their little car into the village square long enough to plaster posters for the upcoming election, music blaring discordantly from their rooftop speakers, and then zoom off, the silence palpably restored. A professor leads a tour group among the ruins of Roman villas, describing the history of the Celtiberians of Numancia. A hillside shepherd who seldom comes down to the village tells a companion that he was born among his flock and will die alone with it. The painter matter-of-factually studies the sky and the village landscapes with the aid of others’ eyes and a telescope’s lens of his own. The handful of men who are most closely followed by Alvarez look up at the night sky and reflect how for thousands of years people have stared at the same moon and stars.

The viewer appreciates the evocative images and stoic reportage of the filmmaker, neither sentimental nor giving in to sentiments of progress, hope, or social criticism. The sense of cycles is enhanced by scenes of spring flowers in fields, clear skies and green fields of summer with crickets chirping and winds blowing about, of autumn with heavy rains, darkening skies, and leafless tree, of winter snow, fireplaces, and echoing rooms casting dark shadows.

Juxtaposition reveals the sense of time: the old men tending the graveyard converse reflectively on how they thought they would be there long ago; dinosaur fossils and the projection of an imagined dinosaur is followed by gigantic modern cranes scarring the landscape to erect the menacing windmills; refurbishing of the ancient castle and tower as a tourist hotel, with the villagers remarking that it is for the rich, that no one will want to go there, and that a bathroom for each guestroom is excessive. At the film’s end, the painter works on a canvas for what may be his final painting, which is the final scene of the film.

Throughout the film, the sky turns, the wind in the clouds remains ubiquitous, and gives the film its structural metaphor. A hushed, reflective pace leads the viewer from scene to scene, negotiated by the seasons, like a set of tableau in a museum, except that the museum, however small, is a microcosm for life, for aesthetics, for the natural course of things.

An accompanying short film can be viewed before or after the feature. “Five Elements for a Universe: Ideas bout Landscape” helpfully reveals (or confirms, if viewed after the feature) some of the filmmaker’s aesthetic principles. The five elements are:

  1. “Something called ‘place’.”
    Cities all look alike, but the landscape of the countryside is the universe, a universe.
  2. “Things come from afar.”
    Memory, language, name, signs, all come from somewhere else. Even inhabitants, visitors, come from elsewhere. Living things walked here, and still do, and the landscape is eminently walkable, and can only be known by walking it.
  3. “Time always returns.”
    Leafless trees in fog, geese crying out, a lone dog barking, the wind blowing — all signs of autumn entering winter. But then spring returns, sunlight and birds, green fields and sunny brightness. Everything returns; it doesn’t go away, it just starts over. Everything is a beginning. “There is no progress; there is no history.” Only metamorphosis, transformation.
  4. “Words.”
    Words always return, telling the stories that have already been told and will always be repeated. This section has few words, but is primarily compositions of especially eloquent photos of the area’s past, and evocative images of the camera gazing at the landscape, the sky, and capturing the sounds of nature.
  5. “Silence is necessary.”
    Words are spoken, with intended meaning, but the true interpretation belongs in the silence that surrounds the words and the land. “Only in cities is silence feared. No one could stand that the endless river of information, images, and sounds should stop. Silence is necessary. This place, this universe, surrounded by silence when we gaze at it, shows us its indifference in the face of our small and great tragedies. It doesn’t change its course. Only memory resists the silence of nature. As long as someone remembers, everything comes back again. But memory requires silence.”