×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers’

British experimentalist Ben Rivers' ambiguity-laden post-colonial allegory is at least as challenging as its unwieldy title.

With:
Oliver Laxe, Shakib Ben Omar, Ali Boumzgour, Abdelkader Bouchefra, Mohamed Bouhriri, Aldelhadi Elbaz, Adberazak Ait El Kaid, Azdine Ahchmi, Samir Hmidouch. (Arabic, Spanish, French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4881172/

Marquee letter placers won’t be the only ones profoundly unnerved by “The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers,” the latest mind-muddling meditation from singular British experimentalist Ben Rivers. Eventually more narrative in nature than most of Rivers’ previous films — though the line between fact and fancy has always been a hazy one in his work — this Morocco-set fever dream traces the punishing descent into subjugation and madness that befalls a real-life European auteur when he abandons the remote Saharan set of his latest film. The minimalist surface of this avant-garde fable masks jangling crosscurrents of subtext on post-colonial retribution and the nature of authorship. His most agitated and enervating work to date — seemingly by design — “The Sky Trembles” is already causing tremors across the festival circuit, though only the most esoterically inclined distributors will meet its unaligned gaze.

The unwieldy moniker may sound like an abbreviated Fiona Apple album title, but “The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers” is actually a line taken from “A Distant Episode,” a 1947 short story by Tangiers-based American expat Paul Bowles. That the text’s narrative is also heavily lifted here adds a further note of self-reflexivity to Rivers’ oblique allegorical study of cultural appropriation and the staggered retelling of stories — with the violent transference of personal autonomy its most extreme outcome. Viewer mileage may vary as to how richly or resonantly Rivers expands on such loaded themes, but they’re most strikingly announced: Stray, sunstruck images and whirring sonic accents are likely to rattle persistently in the memories even of those perplexed by their notional meaning.

The film’s opening half-hour may be its most disorienting, as Rivers’ own directorial investigation is filtered through that of another artist, French avant-garde filmmaker Oliver Laxe (“You Are All Captains”). Initially taking place on the actual set of Laxe’s upcoming docu-fiction hybrid “The Mimosas,” “The Sky Trembles” introduces itself as a particularly deconstructed making-of doc, passively exposing heart-of-darkness disorder in Laxe’s own attempts to follow a wandering caravan through the Atlas Mountains. To what degree the onscreen auteur’s struggle is being represented or fabricated is anyone’s guess: Could Laxe, repurposed as another director’s leading man while helming his own project, be reflecting Rivers’ own authorial presence back at the man behind the camera? Are they conspiring to project their shared neuroses as simultaneous conveyors and creators of story worlds? The hall-of-mirrors possibilities are endless — albeit somewhat contingent on auds knowing Laxe’s real-world identity.

“Straightforward” may be the most relative of relative terms when it comes to Rivers, but the film’s perspective is streamlined when an overwhelmed Laxe is shown to “abandon” his own set, driving off into the desert with no apparent agenda. From this point, the film enters a wholly fictional realm, following the template of Bowles’ story. Attacked and abducted by a band of Reguibat nomads, the rogue director is made an ornamental slave of sorts: His tongue severed, he is clothed in a rustily opalescent suit of tin-can lids and made to dance on command for his new owners’ amusement. Time turns elastic, as the newly metallicized, mechanized Laxe — now effectively a walking wind chime — loses any human sense of perception. In turn, he is remotely objectified by Rivers’ camera, which returns to his point of view only in fleeting, frightened flashes.

As a statement on the dehumanizing effects of political and personal colonization — reverse-twisting the history of bilateral relations between France and Morocco — this sustained metaphor is as arresting as it is upsetting. It is, however, a tad overstretched. The film enters uniquely sensual torture-porn territory in its abrasive latter half, though the forceful repetition of themes and sensations alike palls a little in comparison to the intellectual playfulness of its opening.

It’s the beguiling strangeness of Rivers’ technique, then, that carries the film on a sandy sirocco to its inscrutably cathartic denouement. Shooting in texture-rich 35mm, absorbing hard sunlight so directly that the edges of the frame appear singed, Rivers uses the khaki starkness of his surroundings to place in relief his most nightmarishly surreal images. The disparate, densely meshed components of Philippe Ciompi’s sound design serve in themselves as a severe narrating voice: Strains of indigenous music, often disembodied, raise questions of the filmmakers’ relationship to the culture they’re observing, clashing with less identifiable industrial components that suggest the swarming, inarticulate noise in the captive’s head.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 12, 2015. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Wavelengths; New York Film Festival — Projections; London Film Festival — Experimenta.) Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) An Artangel, British Film Institute presentation. (International sales: Artscope, Paris.) Produced by Jacqui Davies. Executive producers, Lizzie Francke, Michael Morris, Cressida Hubbard. Co-producer, Ben Rivers.

Crew: Directed, written by Ben Rivers, adapted from the short story "A Distant Episode" by Paul Bowles. Camera (color, 35mm), Rivers; editors, Benjamin Mirguet, Rivers; production designer, Hassan Osfour; costume designer, Julie Verges; sound (Dolby Digital), Philippe Ciompi; supervising sound editor, Ciompi; re-recording mixer, Ernst Karel; visual effects supervisor, Marc Hutchings; assistant director, Lina Laraki; line producer, Yassin Marco Marroccu; casting, Baha Choukri.

With: Oliver Laxe, Shakib Ben Omar, Ali Boumzgour, Abdelkader Bouchefra, Mohamed Bouhriri, Aldelhadi Elbaz, Adberazak Ait El Kaid, Azdine Ahchmi, Samir Hmidouch. (Arabic, Spanish, French dialogue)

More Film

  • There's Something in the Water

    Toronto Film Review: 'There’s Something in the Water'

    Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the unpleasant sights, smells and pollutants of industry have typically been located where the poor folk dwell, and police society needn’t notice. With the dawn of popular environmental consciousness about a half-century ago, it became clear that toxic byproducts with a dismayingly long shelf life and unknown (or, [...]

  • 'David Foster: Off the Record' Review:

    Toronto Film Review: 'David Foster: Off the Record'

    By the early 1970s, as the counterculture was dissolving and reconfiguring, there were new pop-star archetypes on the horizon that we still tend to think of — the glam rocker, the sensitive singer-songwriter, the hair-band metal strutter, the prog-rock wizard, the belting pop chanteuse, the punk rocker. But there was another figure of the era [...]

  • Bob IgerSimon Weisenthal Gala honoring Bob

    Bob Iger Would Have Combined Disney With Apple if Steve Jobs Were Still Alive

    Disney and Apple are both launching their own streaming services come November, but Disney CEO Bob Iger says the two companies weren’t always on competing paths. In an excerpt from his autobiography published Wednesday in “Vanity Fair,” Iger revealed that Disney and Apple likely would have merged if Steve Jobs hadn’t died in 2011. “I [...]

  • Aaron Janus Lionsgate

    Lionsgate Hires 'A Quiet Place' Producer Aaron Janus as Senior VP of Production

    Lionsgate has hired Aaron Janus as its new senior vice president of production and promoted Meredith Wieck to the post of vice president of production.  Prior to Lionsgate, Janus served as Platinum Dunes’ head of development, where he oversaw filmmakers Brad Fuller, Andrew Form and Michael Bane. There, he brought in “A Quiet Place,” on [...]

  • Ang Lee Reveals First Look at

    Ang Lee on 'Gemini Man' and De-Aging Will Smith

    On paper, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is a standard-issue, shoot ’em up with Will Smith playing a deadly assassin who must battle a younger clone of himself. The explosions and gun battles aren’t what drew Lee to the project, even if they’re the reason that most people will show up at theaters when it opens [...]

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Sean Clarke Aardman Staff Photography Bristol.Pic

    Aardman Appoints Sean Clarke as New Managing Director

    Aardman, the Oscar-winning animation studio behind “Chicken Run” and “Early Man,” has appointed Sean Clarke as its new managing director, replacing co-founder David Sproxton, who is stepping down after 43 years. Clarke has worked at the British studio for more than 20 years, including heading the international rights and marketing department for over a decade. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content