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.

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

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content