Snippets of lives moving through stark isolation form the narrative of Jose Luis Torres Leiva's remarkable feature helming debut, "The Sky, the Earth and the Rain."

Snippets of lives moving through stark isolation form the narrative of Jose Luis Torres Leiva’s remarkable feature helming debut, “The Sky, the Earth and the Rain.” While its plot doesn’t sound auspicious, pic derives its strengths from Torres Leiva’s masterful control of form, rigorous, painterly compositions and ability to change scenes just seconds before they outstay their welcome. Unquestionably a challenging work requiring auds to fill in multiple blanks, this poetic essay on loneliness will find receptive viewers at fests, though even local play is unlikely to see many bookings. Pic won the Fipresci international critics’ prize at Rotterdam.

Opening has the feel of an Edward Steichen photograph, with blurred wild grasses in the foreground acting as a scrim behind which, in darkened focus, a girl plays with a dog. The setting is the rural coastal area around Valdivia in south-central Chile, presented as a rain-drenched series of weathered homes, quiet forests and isolating distances.

The main character is Ana (Julieta Figueroa), who walks through fields and woods between her job at a general store and home, where she cares for her invalid mother (Norma Norma Ortiz).

Ana’s mental torpor gets her in trouble with her boss, so she accepts a job as maid to another lonely figure, Toro (Pablo Krogh). Few words are exchanged between any of the characters, though their yearnings are tangible — Toro tries to force himself on Ana in a scene of painful desperation, and, while she resists, she continues to work for him.

Just two other characters have any real role: Veronica (Angelica Riquelme), the only person Ana maintains an easy friendship with, and Marta (Mariana Munoz), Veronica’s sister, whose severe depression runs toward the suicidal. Torres Leiva apparently shot more scenes than he included in the final print, but in the current form, he simply allows personalities to quietly manifest themselves without background histories or much dialogue.

Certainly this type of filmmaking has risks, and auds wanting chapter and verse should go elsewhere. This is a mood piece, first and foremost; trusting the intelligence of his viewers, Torres Leiva allows them to piece it all together with the understanding that emotion, rather than story, is what he’s after. (Unsurprisingly, his two full-length docus, “The Time That Remains” and “No Place Nowhere,” deployed a similar style.)

Helmer’s use of landscape perfectly matches pic’s tone, setting his characters within late autumnal, early winter fields decked in variegated earth tones. Even at the end, once spring comes and a strong wind blows through, Torres Leiva doesn’t offer consolatory signs of happier times to come — the isolation at pic’s heart is stronger even than the elements.

Camerawork is neither dull nor showy. Young d.p. Inti Briones reveals perfect control, indulging Torres Lieva’s eye for lighting and compositions reminiscent of classic genre paintings. Slow, limited tracking shots into an image further the sense of wanting to grasp something just out of reach. Sound quality, too, is tops, while judiciously used music is derived from Isaac Albeniz and Felix Mendelssohn.

The Sky, The Earth and The Rain

Chile-France-Germany

Production

A Cine Banco Estudio presentation of a Jirafa Films (Chile)/Charivari Films (France)/Peter Rommel (Germany) production, in association with Agosin Filmes, PxTec, Lupita Films. (International sales: Memento Films Intl., Paris.) Produced by Bruno Bettati, Elise Jalladeau. Co-producer, Peter Rommel. Directed, written by Jose Luis Torres Leiva.

Crew

Camera (color), Inti Briones; editors, Ilan Stehberg, Leiva; production designer, Veronica Astudillo; costume designer, Paola Saavedra; sound (Dolby Digital), Ernesto Trujillo, Roberto Espinoza, Claudio Vargas; assistant director, Waldo Salgado; casting, Paula Leoncini. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 29, 2008. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Julieta Figueroa, Angelica Riquelme, Mariana Munoz, Pablo Krogh, Norma Norma Ortiz, Francisco Ossa, Ignacio Aguero, Isabel Quinteros, Rocio Terroba, Maite Fernandez, Patrick Puigmal, Fernanda Gonzalez, Hugo Medina, Samuel Gonzalez, Chamila Rodriguez. (Spanish dialogue)

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