The latest in a spate of fine documentaries from Spain, “The Sky Turns” is a consummately achieved, lyrical meditation on how to capture things before they’re gone forever. Set in a remote village in northwest Spain where helmer Mercedes Alvarez was the last person to be born 30 years ago and whose last inhabitants will shortly die, film provides the kind of rarified pleasure that discerning festival audiences will lap up. It won a Tiger Award at the recent Rotterdam fest.
Tracing a year in the life of the village of Aldealsenor (pop. 14, and declining), docu’s starting-point is a painting by a local artist, Pello Azketa, showing two boys peering into a lake in search of something they’ve lost. Each of the film’s six sections focuses on a different season, and various events are recorded: the setting-up of a line of wind turbines, the conversion of an old mansion into a new hotel, the visits of the increasingly blind Azketa to find ideas for what will be his final painting, and tourists sight-seeing the nearby Roman ruins.
Old photos are used and commented on by the locals to show how the pueblo has declined from its glory days when the population was 200. But the modern world also impinges, in the form of televised U.S. military activity and visits by propagandists for the forthcoming Spanish general election.
More than just a record of a disappearing way of life, the film emphasizes the isolation of the village while also stressing its deep connections with the larger cycles of time. It begins with an old lady pointing out dinosaur footprints, moves through the Romans’ invasion of the area – after which many locals committed suicide rather than submit to Roman rule – and ends with fighter planes flying overhead, destination Iraq.
Much of the docu is devoted to recording the often surreal, quietly humorous conversations of the aging locals, remarkable people who seem resigned to the forthcoming extinction of their way of life. A couple of old men consider their own mortality as they dig their own graves in the cemetery: “Up to the last minute,” one of them reflects, “you think you’re going to live forever.”
Helmer uses voiceover discreetly, mostly allowing the inhabitants – including a couple of Moroccans who live nearby – and the visuals to carry the narrative. Alvarez edited Jose Luis Guerin’s wonderful 2001 docu “Under Construction,” and the same commitment to letting things unravel at their own pace prevails here – though thanks to sharp editing, pic never becomes boring. Alberto Rodriguez’s lensing is superb, and similar attention is paid to the sounds of rural life.