16th – 19th May, DCA
As a purveyor of art-house cinema, films with long poetic titles become something to be wary of. Generally these are examples of films that are either overwhelmingly didactic or gratingly obsessed with the (self-assessed) brilliance of their style or ideas. The Sky Trembles… teeters at the edge of the cliff of pretension, but manages for the most part to stay grounded and engaging.
The film opens as a fragmented collection of behind the scenes shots from another film (Oliver Laxe’s The Mimosas) as The Sky Trembles slowly coalesces into a relatively more traditional plot structure. This is narratively interesting, with the film at first broadly covering the experiences of an entire film crew before metaphorically zooming in to just the life of a single man, the director (Laxe, as a fictionalised version of himself). This allows the film to have a large sprawling scale, before focusing in when it threatens to lose the audiences’ attention. The only problem in this aspect is the lack of a change to the visual style. With both halves of the film looking very similar, the second half never manages to engage with aspects of its material. The most egregious example of this is seen during a running sequence, which uses exactly the same slow style of long lingering shots as the earlier scenes of characters simply sitting. It’s likely this choice is deliberate, attempting to show all the events as equally naturalistic, but despite this, the film seems to flounder at more emotional or fast paced moments as the visuals do not match the emotion of the scene.
The most interesting aspect of the film, however, is the thematic content. It is set in Morocco and deals primarily with ideas of colonialism and specifically cultural tourism, though this is not immediately apparent. Early parts of the film parade the landscape and people on screen for the unfamiliar European audience to gawp at. This is never directly commented upon and for the first half it feels as if the film is simply capturing these elements for our entertainment. In the second half, the director of the film is captured and forced to dance for the native people, in a reversal of their fate within the camera. In addition his tongue is cut out, symbolic of the lack of voice the developing world has in our Western culture. There is room to read this as either a condemnation of the practice of film crews (specifically apparent in the line: “You came here looking for trouble, now we have given you some”), or colonialism in general, but there is a definite political intention within the film. There is, however, a slight worry with this idea. In order to show the duplicitous nature of European culture, The Sky Trembles reverses the roles of the characters and has a band of Moroccan criminals committing the violent acts. This leads it into dangerous waters of demonizing the very culture it is trying to represent the concerns of. The thematic change between the halves is also focused upon Laxe as the fulcrum of our new understanding, making this a film that worries about the lack of voice given the local people that explains the issue by focusing on a European, which is somewhat unfortunate.
If these thematic inconsistencies make the viewer uncomfortable, then at least they provoke a thoughtful reaction. This matches the overall picture of the film; it tries many interesting techniques and ideas, never quite pulling any of them off completely. However, it remains compelling throughout and it is certainly still worth looking into as enough of the experiments are successful to merit investigation.