Last Life in the Universe By Diego Lerer

in 23th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

It’s nothing new to say that time and space are the basis of cinema as we know it. The ability to capture the uniqueness of a particular place in time should be regarded as one of cinema’s most notable traits, and that’s precisely what goes on in El cielo gira ( The Sky Turns ), the magnificent first film by Spanish filmmaker Mercedes Alvarez, winner of one of the three Tiger Awards.

Heavily influenced by her teacher and colleague Jose Luis Guerin (Alvarez was Guerin’s editor in the extraordinary En construccion, a documentary about the construction of a new building in Barcelona’s decadent “Barrio Chino”), the filmmaker goes this time to Aldealsenor, a small rural town in Navarra, in the north of Spain, to find out what happened to the place and its inhabitants.

The story has a very personal resonance for Alvarez: she was the last person to be born in this village, a few decades ago. She and her family left the Aldea when she was only three years old, as many more did, and now only 14 people live there.

The filmmaker decided to go back to the town, camera in hand, with a small crew, and using the paintings of an artist who was born there –and now is slowly going blind– as a counterpoint to create a personal meditation that goes from the personal to the political, a meditation that is, more than anything else, about time.

Even if on paper this might sound terribly serious and dense, like Guerin’s film, El cielo gira is also a great comedy, depicting peculiar characters, their observations about almost everything and the way they react to their changing surroundings.

In the film, we see the ever-changing landscape as the main theme. Over the course of the shooting an old castle is transformed into a five-star resort hotel, political parties make their way to the decaying village trying to get a few votes, Olympic medallists run around the area and strange science fiction-like machines alter the landscape so now it looks like it belongs on a completely different planet.

he film is about how close and how far we are from this place and these people. The quietness of the countryside, beautifully captured by Alvarez’s camera, the boring lives of the few villagers who reminisce about their past, the images of a somewhat glorious and promising times compared to the difficult reality of a place where everything is broken or abandoned (even the chair on which one of the main characters is sitting breaks in the middle of a scene), makes you feel a certain distance from the situation (especially if you watch this in an ultramodern film theatre in downtown Rotterdam).

But at the same time, and like in a Jia Zhangke film, the big events find their way into the lives of these isolated people: they watch the Iraq invasion on TV and hear the airplanes passing in the sky on their way to the Middle East, they talk about the war, the war before and the war before that and so on, like a continuous parade of disgraces in a world that seems far away but is also near and very palpable.

Two main characters emerge from the group of villagers, two old friends who can share memories but who also –like two old and likable geezers with lots of time on their hands and nothing better to do–, can talk about any subject at hand. They end up becoming the heart of the movie, creating the funniest and the most poignant moments.

If the influence of Alvarez maestros is very much in evidence ( En construccion and Innisfree , both by Guerin, loom large, and Victor Erice’s Quincetree Sun and The Spirit of the Beehive, inform some of Alvarez’s visuals and narrative choices), that doesn’t detract from the pleasures this wonderful little movie has to offer.

The connection with Erice’s Quincetree Sun is very clear in the figure of the almost blind painter Pello Azketa, who comes back to the village with the filmmaker and tries to recapture the sense of a place that –like Borges did in Argentine literature — exist only in his memory and his imagination. Walking through the houses and churches that once were full of people, going around the rotonda where the gigantic elm tree used to be (it died and had to be cut down), watching over the horizon and starting a new painting, it is inevitable to feel a certain melancholy for a time of broken promises, of innocence, in which the painter and the villagers could have an idea of the future.

As the movie ends and the restless old-timers fight against death (“I thought I was going to die before the year 2000” one says. “And here I am, in 2003”), walk and talk some more, they slowly get away from the camera, lost in time, in space, like small figures in a strange revival of Don Quixote as filmed by Abbas Kiarostami.

Here’s a movie about time, space and the gaze that connects everything: El cielo gira is essential cinema.