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Movie Review

The Sky Turns

'Sky' looks homeward to vanishing village

A dinosaur footprint in “The Sky Turns’’ from director Mercedes Álvarez. A dinosaur footprint in “The Sky Turns’’ from director Mercedes Álvarez. (New Yorker Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 14, 2011

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Aldealseñor, a tiny village in northern Spain, is one of those places where slices of history lie naturally atop each other like a stack of transparencies. The dinosaurs left their footprints and bones in the rocks over which the locals walk every day, and the Romans laid siege to nearby Numantia in 134 BC. The Moors built a castle that now, 800 years later, is being retrofitted into a luxury hotel. By this time scale, the Spanish Civil War happened yesterday. Today, the invasion of Iraq is on TV.

But does history stop when no one’s there to tell it? With only 14 aging inhabitants left, Aldealseñor is dying. In 2003, filmmaker Mercedes Álvarez — the last child to be born in the village before her family moved away — returned with a video crew to document the holdouts. Yet “documentary’’ hardly suffices as a description of “The Sky Turns,’’ which screens at the Museum of Fine Arts through Sunday. “Geriatric vaudeville’’ is more like it, or “Spanish Beckett.’’ The film’s humor, like the people the film records, is prostrate but defiant.

If “The Sky Turns’’ has stars, they’d be Antonino Martínez and José Fernández, two graying locals who pal around doing odd jobs and having odder conversations. As they dig a grave, Antonino casually describes the time he accidentally unearthed his uncle’s skull. No big deal. The world is full of bones, and where you put them doesn’t much matter.

Modernity is coming, though, the latest transparency to be laid atop this barren region. We see the installation of a windfarm in the next valley, its propellers scything the air over the ridge like the coming of the Grim Reaper. Arab immigrants work on converting the palace while old men debate George Bush and the looming war. “You realize you are moving toward nothing,’’ Antonino tells José.

“The Sky Turns’’ has much in common with “Le Quattro Volte,’’ an even more remarkable documentary tone-poem by Michelangelo Frammartino, about a tiny village in southern Italy. That film, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, is willfully and profoundly cosmic while Álvarez stands a little too close to her beloved locals. Her voice-overs are poetic, occasionally precious, and her shot language and camera setups are too formal to truly be considered verité nonfiction. More than anything, the movie is a collaboration with its subjects — a work of droll, exhausted semi-magical realism. Instead of expressing sorrow for a vanishing way of life, “The Sky Turns’’ exudes a clear and weightless joy.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE SKY TURNS Directed by: Mercedes Álvarez

Written by: Álvarez and Arturo Redin

Starring: Antonino Martínez, José Fernández

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today through April 17

Running time: 110 minutes

Unrated

In Spanish, with subtitles

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