The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain
José Luis Torres Leiva is one of the most prolific Chilean directors working today. He has made eleven features since 2004 and has screened shorts in festivals around the world—altogether over twenty films in the past fifteen years. He is also one of the most talented directors who blur the line between fiction and documentary.
His first feature-length “fiction” film, which premiered in 2008 at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI award for best film, is part of this year’s Art of the Real Festival, which runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center until May 2nd. It’s interesting to consider how this film stands against the rest of Torres Leiva’s oeuvre, in particular, in light of this year’s focus on Torres Leiva and Ignacio Agüero, another highly talented Chilean documentary director. The inclusion of The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain in a festival that focuses on nonfiction films only makes sense after you’ve understood Torres Leiva’s entire filmography. Namely, how he has walked the fiction/non-fiction line, and come away with a full understanding of possibilities inherent to hybrid form.
The films Torres Leiva has made in the nine years after the release of The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain, demonstrate how taking snippets of reality can profoundly affect the emotional weight of a film that, at first, looks like pure fiction. The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain focuses on four characters: Ana, Verónica, Marta and Toro, who live on an island in the south of Chile, where they try to connect with each other with small chat, accompanying each other on the beach, in a car, on the ferry that takes them from the island to the continent or, on rainy days, at home. But they never actually connect; they are sick or lonely, they have desires they never speak of or fulfill, and their lives are filled with silence, interrupted by naïve, senseless dialogue, or only grunts and cries when they are expected to express more meaningful thoughts.
The island where all this takes place helps to elucidate how these characters are isolated from the rest—in most scenes, our protagonists appear surrounded by their coworkers or by the other main characters. But in their time alone, they seem thwarted against the backdrop of the sea or forest. They reveal themselves not as fully-fledged characters, but as weak people who constantly fail to fulfill their own expectations. Though the illness is never mentioned, the film is one of the most honest portrayals of depression, whose realness greatly enriches the overall feeling of the film.
Torres Leiva casts actors in some of the roles. But what’s important is the inclusion of Julieta Figueroa, in the role of Ana. Figueroa also plays one of the protagonists of Torres Leiva’s earlier short, Obreras saliendo de la fábrica (2005), which some critics see as the spiritual prequel to The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain. The short takes a documentary approach to a fiction about four women who share each other’s company, at work and outside of it. The film is comprised of sixteen long shots. The overall approach is so cautious and respectful of the actual women’s lives it is hard to believe that this is a fictional work—and indeed, it has played mostly in documentary festivals. Beneath the laughter, we glimpse the sadness of which the women don’t speak. Figueroa also appears in Torres Leiva’s feature, Verano (2011) and in a fiction short film that played in Rotterdam, El sueño de Ana (2017).
Figueroa has so far worked exclusively with Torres Leiva, and no other direction. At times, it feels as if Torres Leiva is secretly chronicling her life, disguising it as fiction. She’s always a figure of sadness, death, and desperation, which feel real. Alongside her, other non-professional actors populate the screen, such as Angélica Riquelme and filmmaker Ignacio Agüero, who make The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain seem like a hushed tale, full of secrets whispered in Torres Leiva’s ear.
There’s a tactile element in each scene, and the textures always play a major role. We see this already in the first frame, in which a woman playing with her dog seems engulfed by the mist-filled landscape, and by its whiteness. The camera pans to a tree shedding its leaves and up the branches, making us feel the soft and cold wood, as well as the shriveled touch of the leaves about to fall. The first shot evokes the film’s entire concept: The characters are lost in their helplessness, trying to come to terms with their mortality. Nature seems to be the only thing they admire, because it is eternal. But even the things of nature wither and die. It is fall and spring is still far off.